WASHINGTON — A House panel conducted what amounted to a political trial in absentia on Tuesday, weighing accusations on how the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has led the agency’s handling of Yucca Mountain.
NRC leader Gregory Jaczko was not present for the subcommittee hearing, at which government inspectors reported after a seven-month probe that he was less than forthcoming with colleagues about his intent to halt the Nevada nuclear waste project.
Republicans, who have pursued Jaczko over the Yucca matter, charged that he neglected his duty as chairman to keep other commissioners fully informed about a budget directive last October that told the NRC staff to wind down its evaluation of the site and that he effectively shelved a key safety report.
According to a report issued last week, Jaczko insisted on handling Yucca Mountain as an administrative matter, keeping it under his chairman’s purview and avoiding direct confrontation with several fellow commissioners he knew would be opposed.
Several NRC commissioners told investigators they protested to no avail. Also, the probe revealed grievances about Jaczko’s management style including complaints about his temper and tendency to control the flow of information available to other commissioners.
Also, 10 months after commissioners cast votes on whether to proceed with the Yucca project, the agency has yet to hold a final affirmation vote, leading to a further accusation Jaczko has slow-walked the issue while time runs out on the project.
Democrats came to Jaczko’s defense, stressing the NRC’s inspector general concluded that he acted within the considerable powers that are assigned to the chairman of the nuclear safety agency to set its priorities and manage its workflow.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said others might not have liked the actions Jaczko took, “but does that mean his behavior is illegal?”
Appearing before the committee, NRC Inspector General Hubert Bell told lawmakers the investigation turned up no evidence that Jaczko acted illegally.
But, Bell told lawmakers, Jaczko’s handling of the issue “is not an upfront way to do business.”
Later, though, Assistant Inspector General Joseph McMillan said in response to a question about Jackzo misleading colleagues that “one could draw the conclusion that it is opposite the intent of the statute.”
At another point, McMillan told lawmakers there was no evidence that Jaczko took direction from White House officials or from Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., a former boss and the chief advocate for ending the Yucca project.
“Nobody said there was interference,” McMillan said. “I want to assure you that never came up.”
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, contended Jaczko did violate the law.
“I have read the statute that applies to the NRC, and it says the chairman ‘must fully inform other commissioners of all pending actions,’ ” Barton said. “That would appear to me that he factually violated the law. He did not uphold his responsibility under the statute. That is clear layman’s common sense.”
“The clear impression is we have a chairman over there who is unprofessional, who intimidates, who manipulates,” added Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky.
The hearing of the energy and the economy subcommittee was the latest airing of the Yucca Mountain controversy as the panel continues to investigate the Obama administration’s decision to terminate what had been a decades-long effort to develop a storage site for highly radioactive materials.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said further hearings are planned.
Democrats have charged that Jaczko is being targeted in a Republican witch hunt in a bid to revive the nuclear project.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said that when the Obama administration decided to scrap Yucca Mountain, Jaczko “did what any permitting office would do when a building plan is canceled. He stopped spending money processing the permit.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.