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Why is safety a divisive issue for Nuclear Regulatory Commission?

NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko has found himself on the losing side of 4-1 votes that usually end up favoring less stringent regulations for the industry. He's also been the target of a congressman's attacks.

April 29, 2012|Michael Hiltzik
  • Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), left, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko and NRC senior resident inspector Greg Warnock listen to a safety briefing this month before entering the containment area of one of the reactors at the San Onofre nuclear plant.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), left, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman… (Lynn Sakamoto, Associated…)

Reading between the lines, it's probably fair to say that Greg Jaczko may not be someone you'd want to work for.

As chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, he's been accused of yelling at people, browbeating subordinates and picking fights with his fellow NRC commissioners when he doesn't get his way. That's pretty much the totality of the bill of particulars Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) put out in December in support of a concerted, albeit unsuccessful, campaign to drive Jaczko from his job.

(Jaczko has acknowledged that there are strong disagreements within the agency, but vehemently denies being especially tough on women, another charge made by Issa.)

What the report on Jaczko issued by Issa's committee on oversight and government reform didn't delve into too deeply, however, were the policy issues underlying the personal friction. That's too bad, because the disagreements concerned Jaczko's efforts to tighten safety and security regulations for the nation's 104 nuclear power reactors, in the face of the other commissioners' efforts to slow him down.

Given what the agency's critics say is its customary laxness in matters of safety and security, you'd think that would be the central concern of a committee devoted to government oversight. Not in this case.

Issa's relentless focus on trivialities now threatens to bite him where it hurts. Safety issues are at the heart of the unfolding fiasco at Southern California Edison's San Onofre nuclear plant, which is in Issa's district. San Onofre was completely shut down starting in February, after engineers discovered unexpectedly extensive wear in brand new generators installed at a cost of nearly $700 million.

By then, at least one leak had released a small amount of radioactivity into the atmosphere. It's a good bet that the plant will stay offline through the peak electrical demand months of summer, posing the prospect of blackouts and higher costs for customers across Southern California.

The entire affair points to the possibility that the NRC allowed Edison to make design changes in the equipment without adequate regulatory input, which is the level of performance NRC critics have warned about for years, and which got short shrift from Issa.

The congressman wisely has taken a hands-off stance on the NRC's current investigation of San Onofre. "The dysfunction at the NRC that the committee has looked at is very much a separate question from what's going on with the situation at San Onofre," Issa's spokesman, Frederick Hill, told me. Perhaps, but many independent NRC watchdogs think San Onofre raises more important questions about the NRC than those on which Issa did sound off.

"There are a lot of other things at the NRC worth examining by Congress," says Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Other longtime critics of the agency suggest that Issa's focus on personal spats was misplaced in Washington, where sharp elbows are part of the standard armory for turf battles. It's bizarre to see Issa trying to pillory Jaczko for being highhanded — he's not above being highhanded himself when it serves his purpose. (Ask the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, the target of an earlier Issa campaign.)

It's important to be mindful that all five NRC members are pro-nuclear to varying degrees. All are scientists or engineers.

Three are Democrats. Jaczko, who has served on the commission since 2005 and was appointed chairman in 2009, holds a physics doctorate from the University of Wisconsin and served as an aide to Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) before joining the agency. George E. Apostolakis is a former MIT professor and William D. Magwood a physicist and former manager at the utility industry's Edison Electric Institute.

Two are Republicans: Kristine L. Svinicki was a nuclear engineer at the Department of Energy, and William C. Ostendorff is an engineer and former submarine commander.

One might expect, at worst, that the commission would split along partisan lines. But NRC watchers say their votes more typically reflect their attitudes toward regulating the nuclear power industry. Jaczko often finds himself on the losing side in 4-1 votes, with the majority favoring less stringent safety and security initiatives.

"Greg's not anti-nuclear," says Christopher Paine, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, "but he's pro-nuclear in a smart and considered way. He's the first NRC chairman who's been serious about nuclear safety in quite some time."

The most important issue driving a wedge between Jaczko and the four other commissioners has been how to shore up nuclear safety in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed Japan's coastal Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

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