By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Responding to a bitter power struggle at the U.S. nuclear safety regulator, Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives are drawing up legislation that would rein in the authority of the agency's chairman.
As the five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission faces two days of hearings on Capitol Hill probing why relationships have deteriorated, Lee Terry, a Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is drafting a bill that would "clarify" the powers of the agency's chairman, a Republican aide said.
What prompted the bill was the unprecedented move by the agency's four commissioners - two Democrats and two Republicans - to raise "grave concerns" about the way Chairman Gregory Jaczko is doing the job.
William Magwood, Kristine Svinicki, William Ostendorff and George Apostolakis said Jaczko has bullied senior staff, withheld information, and undermined the commission's ability to function.
Jaczko has denied acting unprofessionally, and said commissioners do not understand their roles.
ISSA PROBES NRC BAD BLOOD
The controversy coincides with the commission working on a sweeping set of regulatory changes recommended following the March nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant.
The changes could cost millions of dollars for operators of the 104 aging nuclear power plants in the United States.
A 61-page report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Republican Darrell Issa, blamed Jaczko for creating a hostile work environment. However, Democrats on the panel have said Jaczko broke no laws.
The allegations will be the focus of the committee's hearing on Wednesday.
Edward Markey, a Democratic lawmaker and long-time nuclear critic, said the Issa report was "replete with overwrought emotional dramatizations."
"The chairman has done nothing more than try to get a Commission that has for far too long served as a lapdog for the nuclear industry to finally stand up and be a real watchdog," said Markey, a former employer of Jaczko, who released a report of his own on Friday that said commissioners were conspiring against Jaczko.
BILL WOULD REINFORCE ROLES
By law, the chairman is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the agency, while the commissions form policy and regulations - a division of roles exhaustively described in a 69-page internal procedures document.
Jaczko and the commissioners disagree on how to interpret those procedures. The draft Republican bill seeks to clarify and adjust certain authorities of the chairman.
"Over the last couple of years, we have seen trust at the commission be broken. Congress should legislate to help the commission function at the highest level," said an introduction to the draft bill seen by Reuters.
The bill would adjust the prescribed time limits for filing briefs commissioners use to vote on policy issues, and would give commissioners a greater role in the agency's budgets.
The legislation will face an uphill battle. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, has strongly defended Jaczko, who used to be an aide, and has complained Jaczko is the victim of a "politically motivated witch hunt."
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)