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An internal dispute at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ensnared part of Southern Co.'s (SO) application for a new nuclear reactor license.
The license came up Thursday as the five members of the U.S. nuclear safety agency faced questions at a congressional hearing. Four of the five commissioners, including two Republicans and two Democrats, have said they feel the NRC's Democratic chairman, Gregory Jaczko, ordered the agency's staff to withhold information from them.
Until now, few specifics about that alleged conduct had been made public. But on Thursday Jaczko's colleagues said that they felt misled regarding an analysis of part of Southern's application. The example offered a window into the conflict that has been simmering at the commission for months, culminating in two congressional hearings this week.
At issue was a request from Southern that the commission has been considering this fall. The company wanted its license, if approved by the NRC, to be effective right away, rather than waiting 30 days as is currently required. Southern hopes to avoid construction delays on a new reactor at its Vogtle plant in Georgia.
Before the NRC decided on the request, the agency's career staff prepared a written opinion about it, outlined four possible courses of action, and recommended one of them, according to testimony by commissioners Thursday. The four other commissioners received the staff's analysis from the chairman's office, as per the agency's usual procedures.
But several commissioners said Thursday that the staff analysis included a recommendation that did not reflect the staff's actual opinion, according to conversations they had with staff.
"What I had heard is that there was an interchange between the chairman and (a senior agency official) about this issue and at the chairman's request the paper was changed," said Commissioner William Ostendorff at a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Ostendorff said the staff had found there would be no safety issue in supporting Southern's request.
Jaczko has since said he would not support Southern's request, saying the company needed to show "good cause" first. The commission has still not made a final decision on the request.
Jaczko did not respond directly to Ostendorff's statement in the hearing, and his spokesman had no immediate comment. "Part of my job is ensuring that my colleagues fully trust and are willing to work with me," Jaczko said at Thursday's hearing. "Clearly I have some work to do in that area."
The chairman is required by statute to keep the commission fully informed. Jaczko says he has fulfilled that responsibility. But current and former NRC officials say that Jaczko has sought to influence the staff's communications with other commissioners, potentially misleading them. They say Jaczko's efforts are a departure from the "collegial" way NRC has operated.
"We receive documents, issue updates, and reports on the Chairman's orders through what has become an underground network of individuals who remain loyal to the normal functioning of the agency," Commissioner William Magwood said in testimony before a House oversight committee on Wednesday.
Magwood and the other commissioners have noted that so far, they feel they have been fully informed before making decisions. Commissioner George Apostolakis said the issues that arose with Southern's request were not routine.
But the commissioners worry they might miss something in the future, and their public complaints have raised questions about Jaczko's future, although he says he has no plans to step down.
The agency's internal disputes also involve allegations that Jaczko has bullied and intimidated senior staff, including women, creating a "chilled work environment," a charge Jaczko has denied. He said on Thursday he was "mortified to hear those statements" and pledged to work with his colleagues to address their concerns.
-By Ryan Tracy, Dow Jones Newswires; 202-862-9245; email@example.com