Head of US nuclear safety agency to step down
- Published on 05/21/2012 - 11:06 am
- Written by MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press
(AP) — The chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, under fire for what fellow commissioners called an intimidating, even bullying style, announced his resignation Monday.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said in a written statement that it was the right time to step down, adding that he hoped his successor would keep a strong focus on safety. Jaczko said he will continue to lead the commission until his successor is confirmed.
Jaczko, 41, did not mention the bullying allegations in his statement, but he has been dogged by criticism that his unyielding style had created a chilled working environment at the nuclear commission, which oversees safety at the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors.
The four other commissioners on the five-member panel had accused Jaczko of intimidation and bullying and said women at the agency felt especially threatened.
The commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans — sent a letter to the White House in October expressing "grave concern" about Jaczko' s actions, which they said were "causing serious damage" to the commission and could adversely affect safety at the nation's nuclear power plants.
White House spokesman Clark Stevens said President Barack Obama appreciates Jaczko's service and efforts to further the mission of the nuclear agency.
"A strong and effective NRC is crucial to protecting public health and safety, promoting defense and security, and protecting the environment, and we intend to nominate a new chairman soon," Stevens said.
Jaczko, who has denied any wrongdoing, was the agency's public face during its response last year to an earthquake and tsunami that triggered nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan. He also took responsibility for recommending that U.S. citizens living in Japan evacuate an area larger than what U.S. communities near nuclear facilities prepare for, a decision that lawmakers and the NRC's advisory board questioned.
An inspector general's report released last summer said Jaczko had intimidated staff members who disagreed with him and withheld information from members of the commission to manipulate their decisions on critical votes.
Obama appointed Jaczko, a Democrat and former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, in 2009 to lead the independent agency. Since then, he has made a series of decisions to delay or halt work on a proposed nuclear waste dump at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, a project Obama had made a campaign promise to kill.
Jaczko's actions have been criticized by congressional Republicans, his own scientific staff and the NRC's inspector general. The IG report found that Jaczko acted within his authority and broke no laws. But it also concluded that to get his way on the issue he failed to be forthcoming with other commissioners.
Reid, the leading opponent of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site, praised Jaczko's service to the commission on Monday.
"He dedicated his tenure to improving the safety of nuclear energy, and his leadership during the Fukushima nuclear crisis protected millions of Americans," Reid said in a statement.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the senior Republican on the Senate Environment Committee, said Jaczko's decision to resign was the right one.
"Throughout his time at the NRC, it was abundantly clear that Chairman Jaczko used his office to undermine the NRC to the point that all four of his fellow commissioners wrote to the president to ask for assistance as a last resort. With his resignation today, the NRC can focus on its mission of safety without the distractions of Jaczko's inappropriate behavior," Inhofe said.
Inhofe and other Republicans said Jaczko's resignation reinforced the urgency of Senate action to confirm Republican Kristine Svinicki to new term on the NRC.
Obama nominated Svinicki for another term earlier this month despite objections from Reid and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Environment Committee.
Svinicki, a nuclear engineer and former Senate GOP aide, is the only woman on the five-member commission. She told Congress in December that Jaczko had created a tense workplace and that women felt especially threatened.
Jaczko has called the accusations "categorically untrue."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Jaczko's behavior "troubling" said it had "clearly resulted in a hostile work environment for women that ran counter to acceptable norms of workplace equality" and threatened to undermine the NRC's mission.
"The only thing surprising about (Jaczko's) resignation is the fact that the Obama administration has remained silent for more than a year after allegations of Jaczko's offensive behavior surfaced," McConnell said, noting that two fellow Democrats on the commission had accused Jaczko of bullying employees.
Despite his role as chairman, Jaczko was often the lone dissenting vote on the five-member panel, including a recent vote to approve the first nuclear power plants built in the U.S. in more than 30 years. Jaczko opposed a license for the Atlanta-based Southern Co. saying he wanted to wait until the commission approved safety changes prompted by the Japan disaster.
Jaczko frequently clashed with the nuclear industry, which pushed back against his aggressive approach to promote safety, including efforts to ensure that post-Japan reforms are in place within five years.
Marvin Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, said he recognized Jaczko's commitment to set high safety standards.
"We have had differences with the chairman on how best to achieve our mutually shared safety goals. But to his credit we've always had open lines of communications and a willingness to respectfully discuss the issues," Fertel said in a statement. "This has especially been the case over the past 13 months since the accident at the Fukushima plant in Japan. We wish the chairman the best in his future endeavors."
Dale Klein, a former NRC chairman and commissioner who served with Jaczko, said Jaczko had turned the agency "upside down." Klein, a Republican, was appointed to lead the agency by President George W. Bush in 2006 and left the NRC in 2010.
"It has been unusual that you have a chairman that so often loses on a 4-to-1 vote. That is not leadership," Klein said in an interview. "I hope a new chairman can get picked quickly and NRC can get on with its task of protecting the public and the environment."
Jaczko had served on the commission since 2005. His term was due to expire next year.