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October 21, 2014

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Senate hearing on NRC infighting has quieter tone, but still intense

WASHINGTON -- There were fewer fireworks in the Senate committee that grilled Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko and the four commissioners critical of his leadership Thursday, as is often the case when matters move from the House to the higher chamber.

“I'm not going to be holding a hearing like Chairman Issa did, to delve into personnel matters and character assassinations,” Senate Environment and Public Works committee chairwoman Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, said referring to Wednesday's sometimes contentious hearing on the same topic.

“I don’t think anyone on this committee has suggested we’d like to participate in that,” replied Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican member of the committee.

But the tension over whether Jaczko had overplayed his authority as leader of the nation’s premiere regulatory agency over nuclear energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was still palpable.

“It’s not safe to have a chairman (of the NRC) filter, screen and alter reports,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. “I strongly believe that the assumption of emergency powers was clearly in violation of the law.”

“We do have a crisis of government and a crisis of leadership as evidenced by this discussion and the leadership style of our chairman,” said Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, also a Republican.

Those across the aisle had a different set of concerns.

“It’s no secret that nuclear companies would rather have an NRC chairman that lets industry write the rules,” said Democratic committee member Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, who added that historically, the agency had been in too-close cooperation with the nuclear industry -- and Jaczko was the first chairman who had no career ties to it.

As for the allegations related to Jaczko’s temperament and treatment of his staff, Lautenberg added: “I served in Europe in World War II. One of the most intemperate people we had was General Patton. Guess what. We got it done.”

Jaczko has been defending himself against accusations from the four other NRC commissioners that he “intimidated and bullied” members of the staff (that phrase is from an official letter of complaint the commissioners sent to the White House chief of staff in October), withheld information from his fellow commissioners, and spoke in a way that was “humiliating” and “abusive” to female employees of the NRC.

Thus far, Jaczko -- taking responsibility for the full commission -- has apologized to the White House for causing a distraction. He strengthened that apology today in front of the Senate committee -- especially on the charge that he had offended women, which was brought to light for the first time at Wednesday’s hearing in the House Oversight Committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa.

“I was shocked and I have to say mortified to hear those statements,” Jaczko said. “I have never intentionally berated, threatened, bullied, any member of the staff. I can sometimes be passionate, intense in my questioning, and if that has ever led to an emotional reaction by somebody, I would want to know that and I would address it immediately.”

Republicans weren’t satisfied. “That strikes me in politics as a classic non-apology apology,” Vitter said.

But Democrats -- including Boxer, one of the Senate’s staunchest defenders of women’s equality -- leapt to his defense.

“It reminds me...of Joe McCarthy,” Boxer said of the new reports that three unnamed women had complained of Jaczko’s behavior. (Only one of the three, according to Commissioner William Magwood, a Democratic appointee who first brought up the charge, filed any sort of official complaint.)

“What we did is we went over and talked to several women to find out anecdotally if what you’re saying is universally true,” Boxer continued, rattling off the testimony she culled from other unnamed women among the staff of 4,000 at the NRC.

“The most fair person she ever met;” “he treats everyone equally” and “he invites people to dissent and I’ve never seen him mistreat others,” were some of the female NRC employees’ assessments of Jaczko that Boxer read to the committee.

“I will not allow this committee to conduct witch hunts against anybody,” Boxer said -- adding later, however, that she thought the complaints of the other commissioners were a “subterfuge.”

That political divisions are coloring lawmakers’ perception of the facts at hand in this case is clear: Senate committee members all but ignored the panel of commissioners before them for over an hour at the beginning of the hearing, as each availed him or herself of the time allotted to them -- but usually waived -- to pontificate.

Republicans expressed concerns about Jaczko’s conduct. Democrats were concerned with the motivations of the other commissioners.

Those other commissioners also got an opportunity to defend themselves. Commissioner William Magwood, a Democrat appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010, has sustained the most public criticism since a Huffington Post article detailed his past as an adviser to the Japanese company that built the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant that went through a catastropic meltdown in March.

It is Jaczko’s response to that crisis -- he centralized his authority over the agency, which he is entitled to do during emergencies -- that is at the heart of the commissioners’ dispute.

“I don’t have any relationships in the industry that are inappropriate,” Magwood said. “I thought the allegations in the press were really irresponsible.”

While Wednesday and today's hearings made headway on mending broken relations at the NRC, Boxer, like Issa the day before, pledged to check in on the agency every few months with additional hearings. In the meantime, it’s back to business by necessity at the NRC -- and to a work environment that for the next few months, at least, only the commissioners can control.

“Go enjoy the holidays together...I will buy,” Boxer offered at the end of the hearing. “You’re all so smart. Let’s get on the same page and do what’s right for the country.”

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