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Originally published Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 4:24 PM

Guest columnist

Chairman's manipulation at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission imperils trust

Former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers raises concerns about the federal regulatory panel. An inspector general report this month found that Chairman Gregory Jaczko withheld important information about the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository from decision-making commissioners.

Special to The Times

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CAN American citizens continue to entrust their safety to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that regulates the use of commercial nuclear fuels? However capable and respectable it may have been in the past, it now appears to be subject to arbitrary and politically partisan manipulation.

In 2009, President Obama appointed as commission chairman Gregory Jaczko, whose conduct this week is under scrutiny by Congress. He is a former staff member and protégé of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, an unrelenting opponent of the Department of Energy's Yucca Mountain nuclear repository project in his home state of Nevada. Congress designated the site to hold spent waste from the nation's commercial nuclear reactors.

As a new commissioner in 2005, Jaczko pledged to stay out of any NRC decisions that involved Yucca Mountain for only one year.

For the past year, he has been abusing his prerogatives as chairman. He has directed the NRC staff to cease work on the Yucca Mountain permit application, blocked the public release of key staff findings favorable to the project, and withheld information from commissioners that was useful or even necessary for arriving at policy decisions. This comes after more than $10 billion and nearly three decades of careful scientific work in investigating the site.

The concept of the commission as a deliberative body of independent but collegial thinkers, each with one vote, has been violated. Staff morale has been seriously weakened, and the entire agency stands to lose the hard-won respect it has achieved. To appreciate how serious an outrage this is, one needs to review the NRC's origins and history.

In 1974, as the nation's utilities were moving rapidly to adopt nuclear energy as a major means of power generation, Congress, out of a concern that safety and economic considerations could be seriously at odds, did away with the Atomic Energy Commission and created two new government agencies: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Research and Development Agency, which soon became the Department of Energy.

The NRC comprises five members, each appointed by the president, subject to confirmation by the Senate. No more than three commissioners may be affiliated with any single political party. For nearly 40 years, the NRC has worked to ensure that the nuclear-power industry adhered to regulatory safety requirements, and endeavored to do so without undue outside influence.

In 1991, the commission explicitly formulated and formally adopted a set of regulatory principles: The Principles of Good Regulation. The cardinal elements of these principles are independence, openness, clarity, reliability and efficiency.

Independence, the very first of these, is vital to public confidence in the safety regulator; independence equally of pressures from the commercial entities it regulates and from political agendas.

As a commissioner for 10 years, I developed great respect for the integrity and capability of the NRC staff and the commissioners. I never witnessed the type of destructive actions that Chairman Jaczko has perpetrated, even though there were policy disagreements between commissioners; and I never identified any initiatives by a member as politically driven.

My concern for the changes at NRC led by Jaczko drove me to formally ask the NRC inspector general to conduct an inquiry as to the possibility of legal or other improprieties having been committed by the chairman.

The inspector general has now completed his report, which found no evidence of lawbreaking but clear evidence of very questionable and destructive behavior on the part of the chairman in creating an atmosphere of intimidation of staff and commissioners.

Perhaps no laws were broken, yet enormous damage to the NRC's integrity and morale has taken place.

Before it is too late, the NRC must be restored to a status of independent, solidly based integrity in which broad public interests rather than narrow partisan interests must dominate. Dedicated adherence to The Principles of Good Regulation could provide the way to get there, if all commissioners shed the political attachments they entertained before joining the commission.

Kenneth C. Rogers was a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1987-97 and is president emeritus of Stevens Institute of Technology.

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