WASHINGTON — Last December, Kristine Svinicki and other members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Congress that the NRC's Democratic chairman was an intimidating bully whose actions could compromise the nation's nuclear safety.
The commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans — said NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko was responsible for an increasingly tense and unsettled work environment, and that women at the NRC felt particularly threatened.
Svinicki, the only woman on the five-member panel, said she was so uncomfortable around Jaczko that she asked her chief of staff to "keep watch" over a private meeting with the chairman in her office.
Now Republican senators say Svinicki is being targeted by the White House and Democratic leaders in the Senate. Her term expires in June, but President Barack Obama has not announced whether she will be renominated to a new term, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has made it clear he will oppose her.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took to the Senate floor Wednesday to denounce the "curious lack of action" on Svinicki's reappointment and called any further delay unacceptable.
Svinicki, 45, a nuclear engineer and former Senate GOP aide, is "one of the most respected commissioners ever to serve at the NRC," McConnell said, noting that the Senate unanimously approved her first nomination in 2008.
If a new nomination is not sent to the Senate soon, "the NRC will lose one of its finest members, the commission's work will be impaired," McConnell said. "And we will be forced to conclude that the reason is related to her honorable actions as a whistleblower — that she's being held up in retaliation for speaking up against a rogue chairman."
White House spokesman Clark Stevens declined to address McConnell's comments directly, but said the Obama administration "agrees that we need a strong NRC, and that will continue to be a priority." Whenever a nomination is made, "it should be considered expeditiously to make sure there is no break in June," Stevens said.
The dispute over Svinicki's nomination comes as Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney spar over who is more supportive of women. Recent polls show Obama with a wide lead over Romney among women.
McConnell called it "mysterious" that it was Svinicki whose job was in jeopardy, rather than Jaczko.
"Commissioner Svinicki stood up to this guy, who somehow managed to avoid being fired in the wake of all these revelations, in an effort to preserve the integrity of the agency, and to protect the career staffers who were the subject of the chairman's tactics," McConnell said.
A spokesman for Reid said the delay in Svinicki's nomination had nothing to do with her complaint against Jaczko, a former Reid aide who has denied bullying anyone at the NRC. Jaczko has supported efforts by the Obama administration to close down a proposed nuclear waste dump at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, is strongly opposed to the project.
"Senator Reid opposes Commissioner Svinicki's re-nomination because she lied to Congress about her past work on Yucca Mountain," Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said Wednesday.
Svinicki said during a 2007 confirmation hearing that she had not worked directly on the Yucca Mountain project while working at the Energy Department in the 1990s, a statement Jentleson and other Democrats called false. Department records show that Svinicki co-authored technical papers on waste disposal issues related to Yucca Mountain in the mid-1990s, while working for the agency's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.
Svinicki was traveling Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.
But she told a Senate hearing last year that she did not work on the Yucca Mountain license application, reaffirming her 2007 testimony. Svinicki worked at the Energy Department for seven years before joining the staff of then-Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, in 1997.
Svinicki sparred with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, at a hearing last June.
"I worked on DOE waste inventories and transportation of materials in that program. And I drew that distinction in my testimony," Svinicki said.
Jentleson said Reid has supported qualified Republicans for the NRC and is open to supporting another GOP nominee. Under NRC practice, the president's party gets to name three of the five NRC commissioners, including the chairman, with two members designated as minority members.
Follow Matthew Daly's energy coverage on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/MatthewDalyWDC