After pulling out all the stops and twice putting blanket holds on executive branch nominations to get Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko in place, it’s no surprise that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is sticking by his man.
“Greg Jaczko, as everyone knows worked for me, is actually a very brilliant man,” the Nevada Democrat said last week.
“His No. 1 concern during the entire time he’s been at the NRC is nuclear safety,” Reid continued. “We are so fortunate as a country, and really as a world, to have the good work that he did following the terrible disaster we had in Japan. He focused on safety. I am sorry to say a number of people that work with him, as commissioners, are not concerned about safety. They are concerned about the nuclear industry. He is concerned about the American people, the so-called consumer.”
Jaczko has been accused by the other four commissioners in the bipartisan agency of having a heavy-handed management style — a state of affairs, his detractors contend, that has disrupted the commission’s ability to complete its nuclear-safety mission. In an October letter to the White House, the four NRC commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans — complained about Jaczko’s leadership.
“This letter is not about politics; it is signed by two Democratic and two Republican members of this commission,” NRC Commissioner George Apostolakis said. “It is not about Yucca Mountain. It is not about other policy disagreements.”
But when Reid was seeking to install Jaczko at the NRC, it was all about Yucca Mountain — a proposed nuclear waste dump about 90 miles from Las Vegas that Reid has spent the better part of his career trying to kill.
Just as Jaczko’s leadership at the NRC has been marked by controversy, his journey to join the agency was also a tortured one, fraught with political jockeying unparalleled in recent years.
It started in September 2003, when Reid, who was then Minority Whip, placed a blanket hold over all of President George W. Bush’s executive nominations in order to force Bush to nominate Jaczko to one of the commission’s Democratic seats. A month later, Reid removed his blanket hold after the White House acceded to his demands.
However, Reid brought the blanket hold back when he believed Senate Republicans were slow-walking Jaczko’s nomination through the Senate, something Reid regarded as a violation of the agreement with the White House.
Although Bush nominated Jaczko in February 2004, the White House initially objected to Jaczko, in part over his opposition to a proposal to send tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear waste to the planned repository at Yucca Mountain. The White House agreed to support Jaczko’s nomination after he pledged to recuse himself from any votes on Yucca Mountain-related issues for one year if he were confirmed.
But by June 2004, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, after hearing intense opposition from the nuclear-power industry, had yet to clear his nomination.
According to one nuclear industry lobbyist at the time, the White House believed the deal with Reid covered only Jaczko’s nomination, not his approval by the Senate.
Then-Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) had also said he would not move the Jaczko nomination unless he could pair it with a Republican selection. At that time, only three out of the five seats on the NRC were filled, and a GOP nominee to the commission had withdrawn his name from consideration after Democrats stalled his nomination for seven months.
Still, Reid moved to place holds on all nondefense, nonjudicial nominations sent to the Senate by the White House until Jaczko was approved.
Jaczko was subsequently recess-
appointed by the president and sworn Jan. 21, 2005. He was part of another nomination showdown in 2008 for a second term. Jaczko was designated NRC chairman by President Barack Obama in May 2009.
“It seemed to me that Reid extracted the nomination out of the administration,” said Sarah Binder, a historian of Congress at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The blanket hold “puts the screws to the administration” and can be effective “particularly in a period of divided government,” Binder said. “The Senator may take some heat in Washington, but no one from their home state is likely to criticize them.”
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a Roll Call contributing writer, said Reid’s use of the blanket hold was pretty aggressive.
“This was unusual,” Ornstein said. “It probably is not something you’re going to see very often.”
But Reid’s pick has been coming under fire in recent weeks after the letter from other commissioners was released, and the entire commission was called to the Hill to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Environment and Public Works panel last week.
At an Oversight and Government Reform hearing last week, NRC Commissioner William Magwood IV said that he is “most concerned that the chairman has made a regular practice of interfering with the ability of the commission to obtain information from the NRC staff.”
“He has asserted the authority to decide what information is provided to the commission, when it is provided and increasingly what the information contains when it reaches the commission,” Magwood said. “This behavior is contrary to both the letter and intent of the organization plan, and no commissioner could confidently carry out his legal obligations under these conditions.”
Magwood also raised concerns about “abusive behavior towards staff” and “a growing cancer of a chilled work environment at the agency.” Jaczko has denied the charges but pledged to change his “demeanor” if needed.
However, if Reid’s mission was to get Jaczko on the commission to kill the Yucca Mountain project, the Majority Leader has largely succeeded.
For more than a year, the NRC has been considering an Energy Department request to close the site, and Jaczko has been accused of delaying that decision, presumably because the commission is not voting to shutter the partially built facility.
At the same time, Obama has attempted to eliminate funding for the Yucca Mountain project since 2010, and recently, the Government Accountability Office issued a report on alternative uses for the site.