By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A toxic internal battle that has scarred the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as it works on historic reforms now threatens to hold up the work of the U.S. Senate as leaders spar over an opening on the five-member panel.
Senate Republican leaders want the White House to renominate Kristine Svinicki, a Republican whose term expires in June. Republicans believe the process is being held up because she, along with three other commission members, accused the current NRC chairman, a Democrat, of bullying women.
"There is no legitimate reason for Commissioner Svinicki not to have been renominated and reconfirmed by now. And any further delay is unacceptable," said Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, is vehemently opposed to the idea, and says Svinicki is too close to the nuclear industry she regulates and does not deserve the job.
A vacancy could cause gridlock along party lines at the commission and delay safety reforms at U.S. nuclear plants that the NRC mandated after Japan's nuclear disaster. Republicans are rallying behind Svinicki as they try to improve their ratings among female voters in the run-up to the November 6 presidential election.
Senator Jeff Sessions said last month that Svinicki "should not be forced to leave" the commission when her term ends. "I'm not going to let that happen ... even if we have to bring the Senate to a grinding halt," he said.
McConnell, Sessions and other senior Senate Republicans are slated to speak to reporters on Thursday morning about the brewing controversy that has already revived past accusations about lies, bullying and revenge at the helm of the nuclear regulator.
Last year, Svinicki and the three other commissioners at the NRC - two Democrats, two Republicans - took the unprecedented step of complaining to the White House about the management style of Gregory Jaczko, the NRC chairman.
Their concerns were made public in December during hearings on Capitol Hill, where the commissioners accused Jaczko - a former Reid staffer - of berating senior women NRC staff members, bringing them to tears in front of others.
McConnell questioned whether Svinicki's renomination was being "held up in retaliation for speaking up against a rogue chairman who bullies his subordinates."
Jaczko denied intentionally threatening others.
Reid said Jaczko was the victim of what he called a "witch hunt," because he aggressively sought safety reforms in the wake of Japan's 2011 nuclear disaster.
The NRC is in the midst of mandating costly changes for the nation's 104 nuclear plants, owned by companies such as Exelon and Entergy Corp. It also recently approved licenses for the first new U.S. plants in more than 30 years, owned by Southern Co and Scana Corp.
Jaczko cast the lone dissenting vote against the new licenses.
LIED TO CONGRESS?
Reid believes Svinicki disqualified herself from the job by lying during a 2007 hearing, an aide said.
"Senator Reid opposes Commissioner Svinicki's renomination because she lied to Congress about her past work on Yucca Mountain," said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid, in a statement.
At the hearing, Svinicki said she had done some work related to the Yucca Mountain, a nuclear waste dump site in Nevada that Reid successfully killed, earning the ire of many Republicans. But she said she had not worked directly on the license.
Technical reports authored by Svinicki during her time at the Energy Department seem to show she was much more intimately involved in Yucca, but Svinicki maintains she did not mischaracterize the extent of her work.
The White House has not yet nominated someone to the spot, designated for a Republican candidate, and has not commented directly on the dispute.
Svinicki is believed to be traveling outside the country, and could not be reached for comment.
If her spot goes unfilled, the NRC could face gridlock on some of its votes - as could the Senate, if Republicans make good on threats to tie up business because of the dispute.
It would not be the first time an NRC appointment disrupts the work of the Senate. In 2005, when Jaczko was first put forward for a Democratic commissioner spot on the NRC, Reid held up about 175 other political appointments from then-President George W. Bush until Republicans lifted their objections.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)