By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A report from a top Congressional watchdog said on Tuesday the dysfunction within the five-member U.S. nuclear safety regulator is "not sustainable," releasing new details about a breakdown that is hurting staff morale and slowing policy decisions.
An investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Republican Darrell Issa, blames nuclear agency chairman Gregory Jaczko for the mess, and paints an unflattering picture of his temper and decisions.
Jaczko, who has close ties to Congressional Democrats, has sought to quickly move forward on regulations he feels are necessary for nuclear safety. He has previously defended his actions.
His supporters say he is being thwarted by a powerful industry that wants to slow the pace of reforms after the March disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan exposed safety gaps that could lead to expensive changes to the nation's 104 reactors.
The 61-page report, based on interviews with 15 senior staff and top aides to each commissioner as well as "tens of thousands of pages of documents," will be in focus at a House Oversight hearing on Wednesday with the full commission.
"What began as a lack of trust and collegiality at the commission level has become a battle of wills - the will of the chairman versus the will of the majority," the Issa report said.
"It is a battle that plays out on an almost daily basis, in everything from apparent minutia to substantive policy debates," the 61-page report concluded.
The report seeks to contrast Jaczko's reign at the NRC with historical precedents and quotes liberally from previous Democratic presidents, lawmakers and commissioners who played a role in setting up the structure and roles of the commission - even quoting a prominent nuclear critic from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Commissioners William Magwood, Kristine Svinicki, William Ostendorff and George Apostolakis took the unprecedented step of airing their concerns to the White House in October.
The White House has said the agency is functioning despite its conflicts, and said it has confidence in Jaczko and the commissioners.
SLAMMING THE GAVEL
Jaczko has a hot temper, which was documented in a report in June from the agency's internal Inspector General.
Issa's report described how Jaczko "slammed the gavel" on Commissioner William Ostendorff, a Republican, in mid-sentence during a meeting about post-Fukushima reforms and stormed out of the room.
Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, a Republican, asked her chief of staff to stay close by during one bilateral meeting, fearing Jaczko's temper, the report said.
Jaczko has tried to limit contact between commissioners and senior staff, and has kept commissioners from getting information they felt they were entitled to, the report alleged.
In August, Jaczko unsuccessfully tried to unseat the agency's top career official, William Borchardt, the executive director of operations, who did not agree with his decisions.
Jaczko has publicly complained that commissioners are too wed to a cumbersome process that slows down agency decisions. The report describes how commissioners have sought to force more formal votes "to play defense against the chairman."
While previous commissions have also seen internal strife, the bad blood rose to a new level, the report said, quoting Martin Virgilio, the number two career staffer, who has worked at the NRC for 34 years.
"I've been with the agency for 15 years, and I view the NRC as being a bunch of apolitical nerds outside the beltway doing nuclear issues," said Ho Nieh, Ostendorff's chief of staff.