Senior Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee accused Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko yesterday of politicizing NRC policy on the sidelined Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. They also lit into former committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) for interfering with a GOP investigation of the long-running controversy.
The contentious hearing, led by Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-Ill.), continued the GOP attack on the Obama administration's decision to terminate the $12 billion Yucca Mountain project. The Republican critics zeroed in on Jaczko's role in the commission's review last year of an NRC panel's decision that the Energy Department lacked congressional authority to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application, which has been pending at the NRC since 2008.
None of the four commissioners present yesterday would disclose the outcome of the commission's closed-door vote last August in reviewing the decision by the NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB). But their responses led congressmen to conclude that the commission had divided 2-2, with Commissioner George Apostolakis abstaining because of his previous work on the issue.
The split vote left the issue unresolved. Had Jaczko accepted that outcome and announced the vote, the commission's deadlock would have left the ASLB's decision as the final word, according to commissioners.
Instead, no outcome was announced and the commission continues to seek a majority vote for language that officially represents its positions, Jaczko said, and without such a majority, there is no final decision. The committee Republicans also pressed Jaczko on his decision last year to shut down NRC's review of DOE's Yucca Mountain licensing application, which he said was based on the impact of Congress' continuing budget resolution.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) suggested that Jaczko was playing "some kind of a foot-dragging game." Barton called Jaczko "an honorable, decent man," but contended the chairman was waiting until June 30 for a new vacancy to occur on the commission "because he thinks on June the 30th he's going to apparently get a new commissioner that agrees with his position and can then issue this order."
The impact of Reid?
That was a reference to William Ostendorff, who was appointed as a Republican member of the commission on April 1, 2010, to fill out a prior commissioner's term, and will serve through June 30. President Obama has nominated Ostendorff to a full term, but the nomination is still pending in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Ostendorff, a former Navy captain and submariner, said he would "do everything I can to stick to my principles." If that resulted in his not being reconfirmed, "so be it."
When Ostendorff, Apostolakis and William Magwood IV came before the Senate Environment Committee for confirmation last year, all three were asked whether they would second-guess the Obama administration's decision to cut off funding for the Yucca Mountain project. The question, posed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), originated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has vowed to kill the waste repository, located just under 100 miles from Las Vegas. All three nominees replied simply, "No." Reid would be pleased, Boxer said then.
Jaczko, a physicist, served on Reid's staff and faces GOP suspicions that loyalty to Reid is guiding his decisions on the repository.
Waxman asked Jaczko yesterday, "Did you delay action on Yucca for political purposes?"
"It was in no way a political action intended to reference any political figure or direction from any political view," Jaczko said.
Waxman took the usual step of reading from several emails from the NRC staff that the commission has delivered confidentially to the committee in response to a pointed request from Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.).
One email, from Daniel Graser of ASLB's staff to the board's chairman, E. Roy Hawkens, last September, suggested that Jaczko was "stonewalling" action on Yucca Mountain "as a means by which Reid gets no bad news before election day," referring to Reid's tense re-election campaign in Nevada.
Waxman does 'kabuki' dance
"Representative Shimkus has alleged your decision is illegal and political at the highest level," Waxman said. "The documents [from NRC to the committee], by and large, don't support Chairman Shimkus' allegations ... but do you think you violated federal law by directing staff to close down review?"
"No," Jaczko said.
Waxman's actions infuriated the Republican side. A staff member, speaking not for attribution, came to a press table to tell reporters that Waxman was performing a "kabuki" dance to give Jaczko the chance to deny the allegations while the committee Republicans were barely beginning their investigation.
Shimkus left the dais to put his anger on the record. "What he did was unconscionable," he said of Waxman's disclosure. "It affects and could very well harm the investigation and produce a chilling effect on anyone else we'll be asking for comment," Shimkus told reporters outside the committee room.
Waxman defended his conduct in a statement later yesterday, calling Shimkus' allegations "irresponsible." Waxman added, "It is fair and appropriate for members to ask Mr. Jaczko about these accusations and the evidence bearing on them. The committee and the public should have the opportunity to weigh both the evidence and Mr. Jaczko's response."
Yesterday's hearing opened a door into the traditionally shielded relationship between the chairman and the four other presidentially appointed commissioners, after Republicans on the committee questioned whether Jaczko had overstepped his authority at the expense of his commission colleagues.
Feuds with Jaczko
Shimkus said the Republicans were not convinced Jaczko was "respecting the roles of his fellow commissioners as he should."
Jaczko and the commissioners took turns explaining their differences on the ASLB review and the chairman's decision to halt the NRC review of the Yucca Mountain application on budget grounds -- a position that Ostendorff and Commissioner Kristine Svinicki strongly disagreed with.
The commissioners also said Jaczko had not consulted with them before advising the U.S. Embassy in Japan to recommend evacuation by Americans living within 50 miles of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex -- a far more extreme evacuation response than Japanese authorities had ordered. The decision "created an uproar" here and in Japan, Waxman observed.
Under questioning, the commissioners also said they had been instructed by Jaczko not to enter the NRC emergency command center in Rockville, Md., during the height of the Japanese reactor crisis, so that the staff's work would not be interfered with.
But Ostendorff told reporters after yesterday's hearing that the commission's collegiality had not been ruptured. "We are able to disagree without being disagreeable."
The commissioners have supported Jaczko's emphasis on ensuring the safety of current U.S. reactors and on NRC's review of new reactor designs. While nuclear power opponents say the emphasis has not gone far enough, Jaczko's priorities on this front have been supported by the nuclear power industry, particularly in the aftermath of the Japanese nuclear disaster.
It would be wrong to conclude "that we're at loggerheads on every single issue. That is not the case," Ostendorff told reporters.