US nuclear agency faces new hurdle

By Roberta Rampton ,Reuters

WASHINGTON — After a grueling week in which their internal dissension was aired on television, the five members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission face an even bigger hurdle — figuring out how to work together. A protracted struggle could mean gridlock as the agency deals with a sweeping set of reforms to fix regulatory gaps meant to keep the nation’s nuclear plants safe. Toxic relations among the commissioners were on display at a House of Representatives hearing on Wednesday in which Gregory Jaczko, the commission chairman, was accused by colleagues of bullying staff, withholding information and interfering with commissioners’ access to senior staff. Commissioners were to appear at a Senate hearing on Thursday. Jaczko, who has close ties to congressional Democrats, has said he wants a mediator to help smooth what he describes as communications issues, and has said he does not intend to resign. His four fellow commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans — have told the White House and lawmakers they do not trust him and are fed up with what they have described under oath as bullying tactics. “It might be worth one last-ditch effort to try to put it back together,” said Larry Susskind, who has mediated complex disputes around the world, and is recognized as a founder in the field of dispute resolutions. But Susskind is not optimistic the fix would work. The concerns expressed about Jaczko’s management style combined with the now public and political airing of grievances stack the odds against any mediator to help the agency come together, said Susskind, who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Way too much is out now,” Susskind said. “Once you’ve made it all public, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

Wanted: Maturity, Diplomacy It is not unusual for administrative boards to be dysfunctional, but the high stakes for the nuclear agency are unique, said Richard Reuben, who teaches negotiation and conflict management at the University of Missouri School of Law. The regulator must ensure that what happened at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex does not happen in the United States. That plant had inadequate backup systems to cope with a loss of power after an earthquake and tsunami. The disaster helped the U.S. regulator spot gaps in its own rules, and it is now preparing expensive new requirements for the nation’s 104 reactors. A respected outside party could help the agency — but only if commissioners truly want the help, and are willing to put aside tactics that ruin trust, and behavior like yelling that escalates conflict, Reuben said. “If it’s personal enmity, it takes a little maturity. If it’s ideological, it takes a little statesmanship,” he said.