Nuclear commission chief 'abusive,' fellow members testify

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 14, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission blows up in abusive anger, intimidates staff members and withholds information from the rest of the commission, all four of his fellow commissioners testified to Congress on Wednesday.

The commissioners told a House of Representatives committee that they were able to do their jobs despite the chairman but that they worried about the future of the nuclear safety agency if the high state of tension persisted.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who sat in the middle of a hearing table with the other commissioners on each side of him, said their accusations were untrue and that he had no reason to apologize. However, he acknowledged that he has work to do to communicate better and regain their confidence.

"This is the first time I've heard many of these accusations," Jaczko said at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "Certainly if there's ever been a time I've made someone uncomfortable, I always want to know so I can take any action necessary to remedy that."

The other commissioners were blunt.

Commissioner Kristine L. Svinicki said Jaczko's "continued outbursts of abusive rage" at subordinates had become more frequent. "All members of the commission, including me, have been on the receiving end of this conduct," she said.

Commissioner William C. Ostendorff said Jaczko's behavior had "significantly eroded the prized open and collaborative work environment of our nation's nuclear safety agency." He and others said they hadn't been fully informed about the NRC staff's views and recommendations.

"Today it is routine for individual members of the staff to come to commissioners to alert us about issues they believe require commission attention but that staff can't get through the chairman," Commissioner William D. Magwood IV said.

Magwood also said he'd spoken with three women on the NRC staff who said they'd done nothing wrong but had been had been subjected to Jaczko's "raging verbal assault." "I do not believe that fear, intimidation and humiliation are acceptable leadership tactics in any organization, least of all the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," Magwood said.

The four commissioners wrote a letter to White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley in October complaining about Jaczko. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released the letter last Friday and called the commissioners and other NRC officials to Wednesday's hearing.

Daley said in a letter to the commission Tuesday that the "management differences" hadn't jeopardized the safety of nuclear plants. He said Jaczko agreed to keep the other commissioners better informed. Daley also said Jaczko proposed that the commissioners all meet with a "trusted third party to promote a better dialogue."

Bill Borchardt, the NRC's executive director for operations, a 28-year veteran of the agency, said Jaczko decided when the other commissioners got certain documents, a change in practice from past chairmen. Testifying after the commissioners spoke, he said he'd been on the receiving end of Jaczko's temper. Asked whether he'd tolerate the same behavior by a subordinate, Borchardt said no.

Issa asked each commissioner whether NRC staff members had experienced "intimidation, hostile or offensive conduct" by Jaczko. Each answered, "Yes."

"Ladies and gentlemen, that's the definition of harassment," Issa said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., warned the commissioners that people who get distracted often fail to meet their goals.

"I come not to ask you but to beg you to work things out," he said.

Cummings noted that another commissioner, George Apostolakis, had testified that Jaczko should control his temper and allow staff members to communicate their opinions to the commissioners.

"Can you live with that, Mr. Chairman?" Cummings asked.

"Absolutely," Jaczko replied.

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, pressed Jaczko to confess.

"Name one thing you admit you have done wrong," Labrador said.

"As I said, I'm very passionate about safety, and if that's ever been misconstrued by my colleagues, that's something I'd like to" — but then Labrador cut him off:

"You can't name one thing! Your answers today have been totally ridiculous."

Issa said after the hearing that if even some of the commissioners saw improvement in Jaczko, he'd be satisfied. He said he wasn't calling for Jaczko to resign, but hoped that his hearing had "shed some light."

Other Republicans, however, wanted Jaczko, a Democrat, to go. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah called for Jaczko's resignation during the hearing. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Tuesday demanding that he remove Jaczko and name a new chairman.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who's also a member of the energy committee, said his office had reviewed emails and other documents and concluded that the other four commissioners were trying to delay the safety recommendations of a task force that had been set up after the meltdowns of nuclear reactors that were hit by the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Jaczko once worked on Markey's staff.

Magwood denied any delay. He said the NRC's final plan would do more for safety than what Jaczko had proposed.

(Halimah Abdullah contributed to this article.)

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