New NRC chairman can learn from predecessor’s mistakes

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)
The Hill
07/23/2012

Last week marked the end of Gregory Jaczko’s controversial reign as Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This departure is woefully overdue.  For far too long, his misconduct undermined the credibility of the NRC and distracted from the agency’s important work.

Mr. Jaczko had a different vision for the NRC, one that placed his personal convictions before the credibility and values of the institution. Collegiality, independence, and openness –qualities that earned the NRC a strong reputation – became inconvenient hurdles in his quest to remake the institution. You were either with him or against him. Those who refused to join his team were coerced, berated, or worse – demonized by his supporters as shills of the nuclear industry. Tensions at the NRC grew so fierce last December that the four commissioners wrote to the White House, hoping for intervention.  Unfortunately, rather than take their concerns from this bipartisan commission seriously, the White House flippantly dismissed them.

Despite what his allies might have you believe, criticisms of Chairman Jaczko were not motivated by politics, policy views, or personality differences. To the contrary, the concerns raised by NRC employees, commissioners, and members of Congress reflect a common interest – preserving the independence and integrity of this institution. Without these qualities, the NRC ceases to function as Congress intended and its credibility is lost. 

Unfortunately, Chairman Jaczko and his supporters lost sight of this, placing his reputation before the agency. Blinded by their convictions, they dismissed substantiated charges of harassment and intimidation as byproducts of a self-described “passion for safety.”  His inexcusable behavior was not only tolerated, it was justified. No NRC employees would be granted such leniency if they exhibited this type of chilling behavior. In fact, the agency has regulations to prevent this conduct at NRC licensed facilities, such as a nuclear plant. So, what does it say to the public when the head of the NRC is held to a different standard than the agency’s own employees or those it is charged to regulate?

Public trust is as important to the NRC’s mission as any regulation or standard. The American people benefit when the NRC, like the industry it regulates, maintains a strong commitment to safety culture – an environment that encourages all employees to maintain a sense of responsibility for the actions of the organization. Over the years, devotion to this concept has been ingrained in the Commission’s culture and operations. As a result, NRC employees possess a unique connection to their work. To them, the NRC is more than just a job; it is part of their character. 

This sense of personal responsibility was exemplified by those employees and commissioners who refused to be silenced by a bully. Their willingness to speak reflects a selfless dedication to the institution, an understanding that the NRC’s commitment to safety must transcend words on paper – it must be part of the culture and work environment of the agency. This is the NRC the public deserves.  

This week marks the first time the commissioners, headed by the new chairman, Dr. Allison MacFarlane, will appear before Congress since Mr. Jaczko has stepped down. Dr. MacFarlane would be wise to learn from her predecessor’s mistakes and remember that the NRC is no place for politics or personal ambition. It is an institution built on trust, strengthened through decades of hard work and dedication. The NRC’s employees, unencumbered by personal or political influences, have the opportunity to prove to the public what many of them already understand – the NRC’s mission is more important than any one person – it is a collective responsibility.