The new chief of staff for Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko has played a key role in controversies that have helped drive a wedge between the NRC chief and his fellow commissioners.
Angela Coggins was named chief of staff late last month, replacing Josh Batkin, who resigned Dec. 27, 2011, to take a marketing and communications post at the International Code Council (E&ENews PM, Jan. 3). She will spearhead efforts to achieve the chairman's goals and communicate with stakeholders and his four fellow commissioners.
Coggins is moving into a tough spot. Jaczko and his colleagues do not get along. In October, the four commissioners -- two Republicans and two Democrats -- complained to the White House about Jaczko bullying NRC staffers, particularly female employees, and withholding information from the commission. Jaczko denied the allegations.
Commission sources say it is unlikely Coggins will ease agency tensions because she is closely associated with the controversial chairman. The sources spoke on the condition that their names not be used because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
NRC's Office of Public Affairs refused requests to make Coggins available for an interview.
Coggins has worked for Jaczko for seven years. She was his legal counsel when the Democrat was appointed to the agency in 2005, and she served as his policy director when he was appointed chairman by President Obama in 2009.
And she has played key roles in two issues that Jaczko's critics say have soured relations between the chairman and the other commissioners: NRC's handing of the Energy Department's application to build a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev., and the agency's response to Japan's nuclear crisis last year.
In both cases, the four commissioners maintain the chairman withheld important information from them.
NRC staff told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Coggins had a heavy hand in changing a July 12, 2011, staff paper that accompanied proposed changes on U.S. nuclear safety following a nuclear meltdown in Japan after an earthquake and tsunami last March.
At issue was the work of an NRC internal task force assembled to draw lessons from the March 11 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. NRC staff told the House committee the task force issued recommendations to better protect U.S. power plants from power losses due to natural disasters and that Jaczko had asked NRC Operations Director Bill Borchardt for a cover memo to accompany the task force's final report.
When Coggins learned the staff had produced a four-page paper with options and recommendations for the commission, she interceded on behalf of Jaczko and edited the document, NRC staff said, according to a transcript prepared by the committee. The agency's technical staff revised the paper to match Coggins' comments and it was sent to the commission, the staff said.
The four commissioners referred to Coggins' involvement in their October letter to the White House, saying the chairman removed critical staff recommendations. They also criticized Jaczko for trying to remove Borchardt for not following his views on what information the commission should receive.
Jaczko told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last month that he pulled the document because it "mischaracterized" the viewpoint of the NRC staff. He said he notified his colleagues that he was going to replace it with a straight cover memo. "At that time, none of my colleagues expressed an objection to that course of action," Jaczko said during a committee hearing.
In the Yucca Mountain dispute, the NRC inspector general in a report last summer identified Coggins' role in changing a budgetary memo that was used to close the agency's review of the Nevada repository project.
In 2010, Coggins intervened on behalf of the chairman to oppose a budget memo directing staff to continue reviewing DOE's application to develop Yucca Mountain until the commission voted on the fate of the project, the report said. At the time of Coggins' intervention, an internal licensing board had blocked DOE from pulling its application, and the department had appealed the decision to the full commission.
Coggins advised NRC senior staff on the inclusion of language in the Oct. 4, 2010, paper that led to the commission halting its review of the DOE application. Jaczko used the memo to stop the agency review in the commission's budget request for fiscal 2011 (Greenwire, June 6, 2011). The IG found Jaczko did not break commission rules.
Although Jaczko said the memo had been reviewed and agreed upon by his colleagues, the IG found one commissioner had not been not informed of the language, two commissioners had been given some information but did not understand its implications, and another commissioner had disagreed with the text.
The chairman has said some of his budget decisions are not provided to the full commission and that all commissioners have information they need to make decisions on voting matters.
"That's been established in our commission procedures," Jaczko told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's hearing last month. "So there are areas in which there's information [that is] not provided to the commission."
Congressional Democrats have accused the four commissioners of attacking Jaczko and aligning with the industry against the chairman. But Republicans have applauded commission members for coming forward to address important issues about Jaczko's management.
Both Coggins and Jaczko have worked for Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who criticized the four commissioners for attacking the chairman and slow-walking safety changes following Japan's Fukushima disaster.
Jaczko served as a congressional science fellow for Markey through the American Association for the Advancement of Science from 1999 to 2000. And Coggins worked on a variety of issues for the lawmaker from July 2008 to January 2009.
During her six-month stint, Coggins focused on issues related to Markey's work on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Former Republican NRC Chairman Dale Klein, who led the commission when Coggins was assigned to Markey's office in 2008, said in an interview that Jaczko failed to inform his office or the agency's personnel department and congressional affairs office about Coggins' assignment.
Even so, Klein said he decided not to pursue the issue and that Jaczko disagreed with Klein's objections. "It was inappropriate, but [not something] I wanted to waste time on," Klein said.
Giselle Barry, a spokeswoman for Markey, and a senior manager at NRC said the detail was set up informally to help Coggins' professional development. Coggins was working as Jackzo's general counsel at that time, and Barry said such arrangements are common between federal agencies and Congress.