Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Meltdown at NRC:

Contemplating the Outcome

This week, like so many others, I watched two important hearings: the hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the rift between the Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, and the other four NRC Commissioners; and the hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which had been scheduled to address the NRC's task force report on the Fukushima accident, but which also ended up addressing the issues between the Commissioners.

Whatever anyone may think of any of these individuals, it is a sad day for the Commission and the nuclear industry that the situation has deteriorated to the level that the four Commissioners felt compelled to bring their concerns about the Chairman's leadership to the White House, and that the Congress had to hold hearings to air this topic.

I'm sure there will be many reports on this hearing, so I will not cover the hearing itself. Rather, in the last few days leading up to the hearing, I've observed that everyone in the nuclear industry has become a political pundit, so without analyzing every single claim, I will just try to list all the viewpoints circulating about the situation, the individuals involved, and what President Obama will/won't/should/shouldn't do in the wake of the revelations.

These comments come from private correspondence, private conversations, mainstream publications, and to some extent, from the hearings. Some of the statements are factual, some are opinions. Of the latter, I agree with some and disagree with others, but since I don't want to assume the mantle of political pundit myself, will offer only a few factual comments, and let the reader decide on the statements.

• Chairman Jaczko is way out of line and should step down or be forced down.

• Chairman Jaczko is the only Commissioner protecting the American public and should stay on as Chairman.

• The four Commissioners who sent a letter to the White House outlining their concerns are dragging their feet on safety and engaging in a witch hunt against Chairman Jaczko.

• The four Commissioners who sent a letter to the White House outlining their concerns are exposing a serious risk to public health and safety from the continued renegade actions of Chairman Jaczko.

• Sending a letter to the White House was a timid gesture. All four Commissioners should threaten President Obama that they will resign if Chairman Jaczko is not removed as Chairman immediately.

• The President should move Chairman Jaczko to a position in another agency and replace him with one of the current commissioners. [Note that the President can remove Jaczko as chairman, but cannot remove him as a commissioner.]

• Even if Chairman Jaczko were to leave the Commission altogether, in the current environment, it would be difficult for President Obama to get a nominee confirmed by the Senate for the vacant position. [Probably true.]

• All 5 commissioners have degrees in some field of physics or engineering and have previous experience working on various kinds of nuclear issues from different perspectives.

• Of the 5 commissioners, only Commissioners Magwood and Ostendorff have management experience.

• Of the 5 commissioners, only Commissioner Ostendorff has operated nuclear facilities.

• Commissioner Magwood is the leader of the "coup" against Chairman Jaczko. [In the Senate hearing, Commissioner Magwood said that he didn't know how that allegation had arisen.]

• Commissioner Magwood is the heir apparent for the chairmanship. [In the Senate hearing, Commissioner Magwood said that he had no designs on the chairmanship.]

• Environmental groups opposed Commissioner Magwood's original appointment because he has strong and long-standing ties with industry--including his previous employment and his close relationship with industry during his tenure at the DOE. [Commissioner Magwood denies having close ties with industry and points out that the work of the DOE office he headed is mainly focused on advanced nuclear technologies.]

• Commissioner Magwood worked as a consultant for TEPCO (licensee for the Fukushima plants) prior to joining the NRC. [This is true, but the last time I checked, the NRC doesn't license or oversee plants in Japan, so it's hard to see the relevance of this.]

• The President would not appoint a Republican as Chairman. [While it's not done frequently, the President certainly can appoint a Republican, and from time to time, Presidents do appoint individuals from the opposite party.]

• The President will not do anything until after the election because he doesn't want to lose the Nevada vote.

• The President will not remove Jaczko as Chairman because Senator Reid is making Jaczko's continued tenure as the NRC Chairman a condition for supporting President Obama's initiatives in the Senate.

• Since the Yucca Mountain issue is now off the table, removing the Chairman won't affect the Nevada vote.

• The President doesn't need the Nevada vote anyway.

• Things will be smoothed over for now and the status quo will be maintained, but things won't really change and there will be another flare up soon.

• The system is broken and can't be permitted to stay as it is.

If I've learned anything at all about politics from living "inside the Beltway" for lo, these many years, it is that decisions are often made for reasons that fall completely outside the sphere I follow. This decision may well be influenced by election politics, the situation in another agency, or any of a number of other considerations. Therefore, I will not venture my own guess. But I will be watching eagerly to see how this is handled, and how the Commission operates in the weeks and months ahead. And whether one or more of the above predictions come to pass.


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