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."
Jaczko says his actions are consistent with commission policy, and he has never expressed any personal views on the Yucca Mountain project.
In an AP interview, Jaczko declined to answer detailed questions but said all his actions were aimed at nuclear safety. The inspector general's report issued Friday found he had not broken the law.
Reid, his former boss, said in a statement that House Republicans should move on and help find "real solutions for safely managing nuclear waste." ''Yucca Mountain is dead," he added.
But that report did not examine another decision Jaczko made related to Yucca: a decision to delay a vote on whether the Energy Department could withdraw its application for the project. Nearly a year after a separate nuclear licensing board ruled the application couldn't be withdrawn, the commission has yet to weigh in, even though a majority of commissioners have submitted their positions in writing.
Jaczko rejected the notion that politics is involved in the year-long delay. "Is the decision-making process taking a long time?" Jaczko said in the interview. "Yes. Is that unusual? Not entirely."
These two decisions have caused longtime staff members to become suspicious of Jaczko's motives. Before Jaczko shut down their efforts, agency experts were on track to deliver two of the safety reviews ahead of schedule. But in a memo issued June 11, 2010, Jaczko told the staff not to issue them early, a move that had employees asking if he had crossed a line. Four months later he shut down the work altogether.
Four of the most senior experts working on Yucca objected to Jaczko's move, saying it was a policy matter the full five-member commission needed to consider. Two commissioners agreed, but when one of them filed a motion to reverse Jaczko's decision, two other commissioners declined to participate. The two commissioners who declined to participate later told the inspector general that Jaczko did not fully disclose that his plans would terminate the work.
When commissioner William Magwood, a Democrat, confronted Jaczko about misleading him, the inspector general reported that Jaczko's reply was: "You should have asked."
Senior scientists with the high-level waste division also objected to a memo drafted by Christine Haney, a top NRC manager, on Feb. 4 providing the commission with an update on their work to close down the review. The memo, they argued, failed to mention that Jaczko was behind the decision to shut down the scientific evaluation.
"Every time I tried to find a different way to say chairman directed or the commission directed, I was told I could not say that," said Janet Kotra, a senior project manager who has been with the NRC for 27 years and worked full time on Yucca Mountain since 1993. "I could not include a declarative sentence that the chairman directed staff to terminate the review." She called it "a most unorthodox process."
Kotra's boss, King Stablein, supported her objection in correspondence to Haney and attached to the final memo. "Staff has struggled on a daily basis to figure out how to cope with this bizarre situation in a manner which would enable staff to maintain its integrity," he wrote on Feb. 3, 2011.
Haney, through a spokesman, declined to comment on the matter, and referred to her written response to staffers. It said that the chairman's decision fell outside the purpose of the memo and that the closure was "well vetted" by the commission.
Senior NRC officials played down the dispute over the memo in an interview with the AP, saying Jaczko has never shied away from his role in terminating the licensing review. The officials also said the objections of the staff were shared with the full commission.
Other staffers put their opinions in even stronger terms.
In an email dated Oct. 18, 2010, and marked "not for public disclosure", Daniel Graser, a data administrator for the board reviewing the Yucca application asked a board member and chief counsel for clarification on what he could do if he perceived that an action was illegal. "If we believe that a senior official is violating a federal law, what obligation do we have to report that, and, who do we report it to?" he asked.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, chairman of a House spending panel that oversees the NRC's budget, has called for Jackzo to step down and said his actions have damaged the NRC's reputation.
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"It's supposed to be an apolitical organization that bases its decisions on science and facts and those kinds of things, and it has been that for many years," Simpson said. "Jaczko has allowed politics to enter the picture, and with many members of Congress, the credibility of the NRC has gone downhill."
Dina Cappiello can be reached at http://twitter.com/dinacappiello
Matthew Daly can be reached at http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC
NRC inspector general's report: http://tinyurl.com/3dj4cxb
Background on Jaczko: http://tinyurl.com/3dxdhd3