Friday, December 23, 2011

The NRC in Happier Days:

My Personal Experience

As we continue to hear of the dysfunction within the NRC, some may wonder about how the agency has operated in the past. Indeed, so far, the only comparisons I have seen to the past are of other times when the agency did not work at its best. This tends to leave the impression that the agency's performance ranges from poor to miserable. That is not the case! Since I worked as a technical assistant to a Commissioner for 4-1/2 years in what, in retrospect, was a very good time, I thought it might be useful to recount how well the NRC can function.

I began working for Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers in late 1987, a few months after he became a Commissioner, and continued to work for him until mid-1992, around the time his first term ended. During that period, there were 3 different Chairmen:

• Lando Zech (chairman from 7/1/86 to 6/30/89),
• Kenneth Carr (chairman from 7/1/89-6/30/91), and
• Ivan Selin (chairman for his whole tenure, from 7/1/91 to 6/30/95).

Also during this time, there were a total of 5 other Commissioners:

• Tom Roberts (8/3/81 to 6/30/90),
• Fred Bernthal (8/4/83 to 6/30/88),
• Jim Curtiss (10/20/88 to 6/30/93),
• Forrest Remick (12/1/89 to 6/30/94), and
Gail de Planque (12/16/91 to 6/30/95).

(Official bios for all the past Commissioners can be found on the NRC website. The extra link to Commissioner de Planque was my tribute to her after her death last year.)

In a career that has included several jobs truly exceptional positions, I can honestly say that working in the office of an NRC Commissioner was one of the best jobs I've held. Part of this, of course, was because Commissioner Rogers was a great boss. But environment is also always important, and part of what made the job such fun was that the atmosphere among the Commissioners at the time was generally co-operative and respectful.

Looking back, I am almost amazed to recall how little party affiliation mattered in our day-to-day activities. I could go into the office of any of the other Commissioners and feel they were open and honest in sharing information and viewpoints. The Commissioners did not always vote the same way, but we did not have the number of 4-1 splits that we have recently seen. And when the Commissioners disagreed, it was not necessarily along party lines and there was no animosity. As a technical assistant, I spent a fair amount of my time working with the other offices to try to assure that we understood their viewpoints and they understood ours, and to look for ways, when possible, to accommodate all the critical interests. Even when we couldn't work everything out, the discussions were always based on solid technical grounds, and the interactions were always civil.

It is true that the atmosphere among the Commissioners has changed over time, and I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking that I'm saying that everything used to be perfect. I think there was a time before I joined the Commission staff that things hadn't been as good. I know there was a time in the late 1990s when things deteriorated pretty badly. That history keeps coming up as a comparison to the present Commission. But most other times, and certainly most of the time between the late 1990s and the present Commission, my understanding is that the Commission functioned very much as I experienced it.

I do not know for sure what characteristics help lead to a co-operative Commission versus a dysfunctional one. During most of my tenure as a Commissioner's assistant, the Chairmen were ex-Admirals. Admirals clearly know how to lead and how to get people to work together for a common goal. That kind of background has to be helpful. Commissioner Rogers was a former university President. If anyone has to deal with a diverse assortment of individuals with strong views and a sense of independence, it is probably a university president. But other successful NRC Chairmen and Commissioners have come from diverse backgrounds.

So there is no one formula for success, and I would be hard put to be able to recommend how to "fix" the current problem. A commitment to change among the present Chairman and Commissioners may be enough to turn the tide. However, that will be difficult. There is clearly a lot of ill will to overcome, and it will be a long time before all the parties will really trust that any change will last.

My main concern at the moment is that the important work of the NRC not be compromised by the internal conflicts that have come to light among the present Commissioners. I hope that, whatever decisions are made, that is the foremost consideration.


1 comment:

  1. Gail - I think you answered your own question. The key to any successful organization is good leadership. While there are some people who seem to be naturally charismatic, there is actually very little about leadership that comes naturally. It is usually a result of working hard to develop in a number of areas including empathy, cooperation, vision, technical expertise, confidence, management, and probably some that escape me right now.

    The current chairman never had any opportunities to learn to be a leader. He should never have been appointed to the commission, much less appointed to be the Chairman of the commission. Holding a PhD in particle physics does not make someone any kind of expert on nuclear energy development or nuclear plant operations and working on political staffs does not provide anyone the kind of interpersonal skills required to lead an organization full of highly educated professionals doing demanding technical work.

    As you pointed out, Admirals, Captains, university presidents, national laboratory directors and perhaps business leaders are far better suited for the job than career politicians whose previous leadership experience includes running a personal staff of about half a dozen people.