Seth Wenig, File, Associated Press
Washington — In the two years that Gregory Jaczko has led the nation's independent nuclear agency, his actions to delay, hide and kill work on a disputed dump for high-level radioactive waste have been called "bizarre," ''unorthodox" and "illegal."
These harsh critiques haven't come just from politicians who have strong views in favor of the Yucca Mountain waste site in Nevada. They've come from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's own scientists and a former agency chairman.
An inspector general's report released last week exposed the internal strife under Jaczko. The internal watchdog said he intimidated staff members who disagreed with him and withheld information from members of the commission to gain their support.
The tactics disclosed in the investigative report are just the latest in a saga unfolding since President Barack Obama put the former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who is Yucca's leading opponent, at the helm of the agency in May 2009. Less than a year after Jaczko was named chairman, the Energy Department sought to pull back its application to construct the dump.
Since then, Jaczko has made a series of decisions that have aided the administration's goal of shutting down Yucca Mountain. His purported reasons for doing so have come under attack by Congress, his fellow commissioners and in-house experts as being contrary to the 1982 law that requires the NRC to review the government's plans for an underground repository in Nevada for the country's spent nuclear fuel.
Emails and documents gathered by investigators on three House committees and reviewed by The Associated Press, along with interviews with NRC staff members, paint an even more damning portrait of the NRC leader. They also raise questions about whether the agency's independence and scientific integrity have been compromised to advance a political agenda.
"He was put there to stop Yucca Mountain, and that is what he is doing," said former NRC chairman and commissioner Dale E. Klein. Klein was appointed chairman in 2006 by President George W. Bush and left in March 2010.
The revelations come after the Japanese nuclear crisis exposed the risks associated with storing spent fuel in pools at a nuclear plant and after reports showing that $15 billion has been spent on Yucca Mountain even though it may never open.
"These actions not only violated the president's own highly promoted principles and directives on scientific integrity, transparency, and openness, but they have increased taxpayer liabilities ..., left nuclear waste sitting at reactor sites across the country with no plan for disposal and ultimately threatened the long-term potential of nuclear power," said Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas. Hall is chairman of the House science committee, one of three panels conducting investigations.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., put it more bluntly: "Science, existing law, and the need for long-term nuclear waste storage seem to be missing from this discussion," he said.
Both Jaczko and Obama have pledged to let public policy be shaped by science over politics. But last October, the NRC chief instructed his staff to stop work on one of the most critical questions surrounding Yucca Mountain: whether the stored radioactive waste would spoil groundwater in 10,000 years and would expose people to unsafe amounts of radiation for a million years.
After fighting Jaczko for its release, congressional aides who reviewed a draft of the analysis say it showed that NRC experts determined Yucca was safe. While Jaczko had not seen the document, his decision to halt the review meant the staff's conclusions were stripped from the report.
Klein, the former NRC chairman, told the AP in an interview that "the decision on safety is the independent regulator's job. They have not been given the opportunity to make the determination."
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