Inquiry faults NRC chief over Yucca site

Says chairman worked to block nuclear dump

By Matthew Daly and Dina Cappiello
Associated Press / June 11, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission withheld and manipulated information in an effort to stop work on a proposed radioactive waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, according to an internal investigation.

The inquiry, requested by Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko apparently broke no laws. But the report says Jaczko was “not forthcoming’’ to other commissioners when he decided in October to shut down the technical review of the Energy Department’s application for the underground nuclear dump.

Jaczko called the shutdown of Yucca a complicated issue and said the report’s findings “reaffirm that my actions have been and remain consistent with established law, guidance, and my authorities as chairman.’’

All NRC chairmen must make “difficult and sometimes controversial decisions,’’ he said.

But a senior Republican said the report by the NRC’s inspector general showed that Jaczko acted improperly.

The report “paints an embarrassing picture of a bully whose use of deceit and manipulation is ruining the integrity of a respected independent regulatory agency,’’ said Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“It’s quite clear that closer congressional scrutiny of the NRC and the role the Obama administration’s agenda has played in Chairman Jaczko’s unilateral actions is warranted and necessary,’’ Issa said. The California congressman’s committee is one of three House panels that are investigating Jaczko’s role in shutting down work on the Yucca Mountain project.

Republicans and many Democrats outside Nevada favor creation of single storage site for nuclear waste, but the Yucca Mountain project is fiercely opposed by Nevada lawmakers, including Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who has vowed to do everything in his power to kill it. President Obama opposed the Yucca Mountain site in the 2008 campaign and has moved consistently to kill it since taking office in 2009.

Jaczko, who has chaired the NRC since May 2009, worked as a science adviser to Reid before joining the NRC in 2005.

The license for Yucca Mountain, which has been in development for nearly 30 years and cost more than $15 billion so far, has been in limbo since last June, when a licensing board independent of Jaczko and the rest of the commission rejected the Obama administration’s request to withdraw the project application. Jaczko has yet to schedule a final vote from the five-member commission on the matter.

In the meantime, the report said, Jaczko first told his staff to proceed with the review but in October changed course and instructed them to halt work.

The 46-page report by the regulatory commission’s inspector general, Hubert Bell, also delves into Jaczko’s management style, saying he often lost his temper and badgered staff members who disagreed with his positions.

Jaczko knew his decision to shut down the technical review of Yucca Mountain, which would be used by the board to evaluate the license, “would be controversial and viewed as a policy decision for full commission consideration,’’ the report says. “Therefore . . . he strategically provided three of the four commissioners with varying amounts of information about his intention.’’

Lawmakers from both parties have criticized Jaczko for what they say is an overly secretive style and accuse him of acting unilaterally on the commission’s behalf.

They cite several examples, including Jaczko’s declaration in March that Japan’s nuclear crisis constituted an emergency in the United States.

Their sharpest criticism is reserved for his handling of the divisive plan to shut down Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The NRC is considering a request by the Energy Department to shut down the proposed waste site. Jaczko has said the five-member commission has not cast a final vote on the issue and has no timeframe to make a decision.