Tensions at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the nation’s chief overseer of civilian nuclear materials, finally boiled over into public finger-pointing and accusations of malfeasance late Friday—creating what one lawmaker called “a regulatory meltdown.” It’s a messy conflict, but one thing is clear: the nuclear industry has many friends on the NRC.
On Friday, Representative Darrell Issa released a letter written in October by four of the commission’s five members. It accused the fifth member, Gregory Jaczko—who is also the NRC Chairman—of “causing serious damage” to the agency with “increasingly problematic and erratic behavior.” The commissioners feel Jaczko limited their role and bullied them in an emergency review of the nation’s nuclear facilities following the Fukushima meltdown in March.
The four commissioners’ complaints stem from when Jaczko invoked some emergency powers right after the Fukushima catastrophe. These powers transfer more authority to the chairman, in the name of streamlining NRC function when something crucial is happening. Jaczko created of a task force to study the Fukushima meltdown and issue recommendations about how to protect civilian nuclear facilities here from a similar fate, and the four commissioners claim not to have been notified of the new emergency powers and not to have been adequately consulted on the task force’s recommendations, which were released this summer.
But also on Friday, Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts released a detailed report directly challenging those four commissioners. His report concludes that they “have attempted a coup on the Chairman” and have “caused a regulatory meltdown that has left America’s nuclear fleet and the general public at risk.”
Markey’s report paints a different picture than what the four commissioners claim—and reveals them to be primarily interested in protecting the nuclear industry.
His staff obtained thousands of pages of e-mails, correspondence, meeting minutes and other materials, and uncovered clear evidence that the four commissioners were largely kept in the loop about the new emergency mode. And in several e-mails, the commissioners pettily gripe amongst each other about Jaczko’s leadership; after one conference call with Jaczko, they e-mail back and forth with comments such as “what a bunch of shit,” “I detected a significant amount of ass-kissing” and “that was a bunch of Barbra Streisand.”
But this isn’t about bureaucratic backbiting. The Markey report demonstrates that at many different decision points the four commissioners were opposed not just to Jaczko’s leadership but what he was doing—namely, trying to toughen regulations on the nuclear industry. At several key points, the rebellious commissioners try to slow down or halt post-Fukushima disaster measures.