By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Saturday sought to defend the chairman of the U.S. nuclear safety commission, a man he helped put into power and who is locked in a bitter battle with fellow regulators over reforms prompted by Japan's Fukushima nuclear accident.
The deep-seated infighting within the five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission was exposed on Friday after Democrats and Republicans in Congress separately released complaints about misconduct at the highest levels of the agency.
The complaints about NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko are "a politically motivated witch hunt against a man with a proven track record of ensuring that nuclear power is produced as safely and responsibly as possible," a Reid spokesman said.
"His leadership during the Fukushima nuclear crisis was instrumental in ensuring the safety of Americans in the wake of that disaster, and his safety-oriented approach is what we need to protect the American people from a similar crisis in our own backyards," said Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson.
Republican Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on Friday released a letter sent to the White House in October where the four commission members said Jaczko was overstepping his powers.
The letter also said Jaczko was intimidating senior NRC staff and an independent group of advisors reviewing the agency's analysis of the March disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
The commissioners - two Democratic appointees and two Republican - said Jaczko's "behavior and management practices have become increasingly problematic and erratic."
In his own letter to the White House on December 7, Jaczko, who was appointed chairman by President Barack Obama, questioned fellow commissioners' commitment to public health and safety.
Democrat Reid represents Nevada and successfully fought to shut down a nuclear waste dump planned for deep inside Yucca Mountain. He helped install Jaczko, his former aide, on the commission, where the chairman's approach and views have often diverged from other members'.
Issa's committee will hold a hearing with all five members of the commission on Wednesday. The next day, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer will conduct a similar oversight hearing for the Environment and Public Works Committee she chairs.
The NRC's decisions are being closely watched by regulators around the world, and by operators of nuclear power plants.
Its changes to safety regulations for existing plants are expected to cost millions for operators including Exelon and Entergy Corp.
In June, the inspector general for the independent agency, which is focused on reactor safety and licenses, as well as oversight of nuclear materials, said Jaczko withheld information from other commission members and attempted to manipulate commission decisions.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; editing by Anthony Boadle)