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Bickering hurts U.S. nuclear agency: report

A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sign is pictured at the headquarters building in Rockville
A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sign is pictured at the headquarters building in Rockville

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A report from a top Congressional watchdog said on Tuesday the dysfunction within the five-member U.S. nuclear safety regulator is damaging the agency as it released new details about a breakdown that is hurting staff morale and slowing policy decisions.

An investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Republican Darrell Issa, blames Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko for the mess and paints an unflattering picture of his decisions and his temper.

Jaczko, who has close ties to Congressional Democrats, has sought to quickly advance regulations he feels are necessary for nuclear safety. He has defended his actions.

His supporters say he is being thwarted by a powerful industry that wants to slow reforms after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in March exposed safety gaps that could lead to expensive changes to the U.S.'s 104 reactors.

The 61-page report, based on interviews with 15 senior staff and top aides to each commissioner as well as "tens of thousands of pages of documents," will be in focus at a House Oversight hearing on Wednesday with the full commission.

"What began as a lack of trust and collegiality at the commission level has become a battle of wills - the will of the chairman versus the will of the majority," the Issa report said.

"It is a battle that plays out on an almost daily basis, in everything from apparent minutia to substantive policy debates," the report concluded.

DEMOCRATS: NO LAWS BROKEN

Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners William Magwood, Kristine Svinicki, William Ostendorff and George Apostolakis took the unprecedented step of airing their concerns to the White House in October.

The White House has said the agency is functioning despite its conflicts and that it has confidence in Jaczko and the commissioners.

A memo from Democratic staff on the House Oversight panel prepared for Wednesday's hearing concludes that Jaczko did not violate any laws or put nuclear safety at risk.

"The investigation has revealed a tense and challenging work environment. However, that seems to have been caused primarily by fundamental disagreements about the statutory structure of the NRC and significant policy disputes among its commissioners," the memo said.

Republican Congressman Ed Whitfield, who leads a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee with oversight of the NRC called on President Barack Obama to replace Jaczko as chairman.

The Issa report seeks to contrast Jaczko's tenure at the NRC with historical precedents and quotes from previous Democratic presidents, lawmakers and commissioners who played a role in setting up the structure and roles of the commission - even quoting a prominent nuclear critic from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

SLAMMING THE GAVEL

Jaczko has a hot temper, which was documented in a report in June from the agency's internal Inspector General.

Issa's report described how Jaczko "slammed the gavel" on Ostendorff, a Republican, in mid-sentence during a meeting about post-Fukushima reforms and then stormed out of the room.

Commissioner Svinicki, a Republican, asked her chief of staff to stay close during one bilateral meeting, fearing Jaczko's temper, the report said.

Jaczko has tried to limit contact between commissioners and senior staff, and has kept commissioners from getting information they felt they were entitled to, the report said.

In August, Jaczko unsuccessfully tried to unseat the agency's top career official, William Borchardt, the executive director of operations, who did not agree with his decisions.

Jaczko has publicly complained that commissioners are too wed to a cumbersome process that slows down agency decisions. The report describes how commissioners have sought to force more formal votes "to play defense against the chairman."

While previous commissions have also seen internal strife, the bad blood rose to a new level, the report said, quoting Martin Virgilio, the No. 2 career staffer, who has worked at the NRC for 34 years.

"I've been with the agency for 15 years, and I view the NRC as being a bunch of apolitical nerds outside the beltway doing nuclear issues," said Ho Nieh, Ostendorff's chief of staff.

(Editing by Chris Wilson)

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