Elizabeth Bewley, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - A spat among the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's five members stems from "philosophical differences" over how strictly the agency should regulate the nuclear industry, Senate Democrats and nuclear experts said Thursday.
Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said the commission's embattled chairman, Gregory Jaczko, has favored strict regulation while the other four commissioners have sided with industry and delayed implementation of new safety rules.
Republicans on the committee countered that the NRC's problems stem from Jaczko's leadership style.
In a letter to the White House made public last week, the four commissioners claimed Jaczko, who worked for nuclear critics in Congress before joining the NRC, had seized too much power, berated employees and created a "chilled work environment."
Democrats and nuclear experts said Thursday the spat isn't about leadership styles or personality differences.
"This is all about safety, dressed up as something else," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "People who are calling for safety get pounded."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said that in many commission votes, "Chairman Jaczko has been the lone vote on the side of safety."
Sanders and Boxer cited decisions on fire-safety regulations at power plants and on implementing the recommendations of a task force set up to boost reactor safety after the March disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Boxer said the commissioners told her in August they would implement some of the task force's recommendations within 90 days, but they haven't, despite Jaczko's urgings to "move expeditiously on safety."
Commissioners said such decisions shouldn't be made hastily.
"Decisions about safety matters should not be made without deliberations," said commissioner George Apostolakis. "I find it deeply offensive that other motives have been ascribed to us."
Jaczko also was the only commission member who voted against reinstating a permit for the Tennessee Valley Authority's Bellefonte plant in Northern Alabama in 2008, two years after TVA abandoned the project. He said there was "an inherent danger" in reissuing the permit without performing a new safety evaluation, since quality oversight of the project had essentially ceased for two years.
Tennessee GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander, a supporter of nuclear energy, said he's had "good visits" to TVA sites with Jaczko but is "extremely troubled" that most NRC commissioners have voiced concern with the chairman's leadership.
"In my experience in public life, which goes back 20 years, I've never seen anything like this before," Alexander said.
In a Dec. 7 letter to White House Chief of Staff William Daley, Jaczko said the "majority of the commission has taken an approach that is not as protective of public health and safety as I believe is necessary," and he reiterated those comments at Thursday's hearing.
"My voting record shows that I tend to be more conservative when it comes to safety decisions, in the sense that I'm willing to require more from licensees than my colleagues are," he said.
Some nuclear experts agree.
"He's definitely more conservative than the others," but that doesn't mean the other commissioners don't care about safety, said David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Philosophical differences over how tightly to regulate the industry is "at the core" of the NRC's spat, Lochbaum said.
NRC votes have been almost consistently 4-1 over the past two years, with Jaczko on the short side, while votes in the past were more often split 2-3 or 3-2, he said.
"The chairman seeks to balance that inequity, in his view, by exercising more of his authority under the law than past chairmen have done," he said. "That's within the law, but because it's a departure from how things have traditionally been done for 10 years, it's ruffling some feathers, to put it mildly."
Peter Bradford, an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School and a former NRC commissioner, said Jaczko is the first commissioner in decades who was appointed to the NRC over protests from the nuclear industry. Traditionally, he said, commissioners have been either "enthusiastically supported by the nuclear industry or at the very least not opposed."
"There's a nuclear party that transcends Republican or Democrat," he said -- and Jaczko is "from a different camp."
Environmental groups that opposed TVA's construction of Bellefonte say Jaczko's insistence on a new safety assessment gave them hope NRC commissioners weren't all pro-industry.
"I think he was right on Bellefonte," said Lou Zeller, attorney for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, which sued the NRC over the decision to reinstate the construction permits at Bellefonte. "He insists on safety, and he also insists on procedures that will ensure that safety."