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Private spat within U.S. nuclear agency laid bare

A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sign is pictured at the headquarters building in Rockville
A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sign is pictured at the headquarters building in Rockville

By Richard Cowan and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Deep-seated infighting within the five-member U.S. nuclear safety regulator was exposed on Friday after Democrats and Republicans in Congress separately released complaints about misconduct at the highest levels of the agency.

The details shed new light on how caustic relationships have become at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is rolling out a sweeping series of reforms for U.S. nuclear power plants in the wake of the March disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

On one side is the agency's chairman, Gregory Jaczko, who previously worked for prominent nuclear critics in Congress.

On the other, four commissioners -- two Democratic appointees and two Republicans -- who complained to the White House in October that Jaczko was overstepping his powers, and intimidating senior NRC staff and an independent group of advisors that was reviewing the agency's analysis of the Fukushima accident.

"We believe that his actions and behavior are causing serious damage to this institution and are creating a chilled work environment at the NRC," the four commissioners said in a letter to White House Chief of Staff William Daley.

The letter, signed by William Magwood, Kristine Svinicki, William Ostendorff and George Apostolakis, was stamped "not for public disclosure." It was made public by Republican Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

In a December 7 letter to Daley, Jaczko refuted the accusations and defended his record.

"Unfortunately, all too often, a majority of this current commission has taken an approach that is not as protective of public health and safety as I believe is necessary," he said, apologizing to the White House for the "distraction" caused by the internal bickering at the agency.

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. The NRC is also expected to soon rule on new plants proposed by Southern Co and SCANA Corp.

MARKEY POINTS AT OTHER COMMISSIONERS

Also on Friday, Democratic Representative Edward Markey made public a 23-page report accusing the four commissioners of trying to impede U.S. nuclear safety reviews after Fukushima.

"The actions of these four commissioners since the Fukushima nuclear disaster has caused a regulatory meltdown that has left America's nuclear fleet and the general public at risk," said Markey, a Democrat and a long-time nuclear critic.

Jaczko was once an aide to Markey, and also worked as an aide to Nevada Senator Harry Reid, who successfully fought to shut down a dump for nuclear waste planned for deep inside Yucca Mountain -- an issue that continues to rankle Republicans.

Markey said NRC commissioners engaged in a "concerted effort" to "undermine" the NRC task force that studied and proposed new safety steps for the U.S. nuclear power industry, "conspired" to delay the release of task force findings and worked to block the new safety recommendations.

HEARING WEDNESDAY

Jaczko and his fellow commissioners are set to appear on Wednesday before Issa's panel. Issa has also asked Daley to sendan administration official to testify.

Meanwhile, Issa released a letter he had sent to Daley saying there were "serious questions" about Jaczko's "conduct and ability to lead" the NRC.

While Issa's letter to Daley did not specifically demand Jaczko's dismissal, it noted that President Barack Obama has the authority to remove him.

It will not be the first awkward Congressional hearing for Jaczko and his colleagues. In August, as they sparred about how best to advance sweeping regulatory changes for the nation's 104 nuclear power plants, they were publicly chided by senior Democratic senator Barbara Boxer for their inability to get along.

In June, the agency's own independent Inspector General described a toxic environment at the commission in a lengthy report requested by House Republicans.

Jaczko did a round of media interviews this week to talk about the NRC's accomplishments this year, but did not have any comment on Friday, an NRC spokesman said.

On Tuesday, he told reporters the commission is working well. "When we're debating and discussing, it brings out the best in all of us," he said.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; editing by Todd Eastham)

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