Late in the evening on Wednesday, one of the busiest and most unnerving times Washington has seen in a long while, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid quietly appointed a controversial former nuclear-energy regulator to a key but obscure panel.
Reid appointed Gregory Jaczko, the beleaguered former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to a newly created congressional advisory panel that oversees the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which manages the nation’s nuclear-weapons stockpile and nuclear nonproliferation with about $8 billion taxpayer dollars.
Jaczko, who used to work for the Nevada Democrat, resigned last spring from the NRC, the agency tasked with regulating the country’s nuclear power plants, after a government watchdog revealed allegations from within the agency that Jaczko was a bullying and intimidating leader. Despite those allegations, Reid stood by his former aide and continues to today.
“Greg Jaczko is an experienced leader on science and nuclear-security issues, and his expertise will be invaluable to the [oversight panel’s] work,” Reid said in a statement to National Journal Daily. “As Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Jaczko helped push for increased safety and security measures to protect our nation’s nuclear plants and provided leadership during the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Jaczko’s experience will serve the [panel] well as it develops recommendations on the management of our nation’s nuclear arsenal.”
Jaczko’s spring resignation from the NRC was the culmination of an almost year-long drama at the normally nondescript agency, which is traditionally known for being one of the best places to work in the federal government. The soap-opera saga displayed itself through inspector-general reports and emotional congressional testimony by fellow agency commissioners, including Republican Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, who criticized Jaczko for verbally abusing women at the agency. The drama also exposed leadership battles between Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a strong supporter of Svinicki and a critic of Jaczko.
The timing and manner in which Reid went about appointing Jaczko could suggest the majority leader was trying not to bring attention to the matter. The appointment was the very last item of business of the Senate’s busy Wednesday schedule, which included a controversial vote on legislation requiring background checks for gun-show and online gun purchases. Reid didn’t even utter Jaczko’s name, instead delegating the presiding officer at that time, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., to put the appointment in the record on his behalf.
“I ask consent that the appointment at the desk appears separately from the record, as if made by the chair,” Reid said at about 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, after an unsettling afternoon that saw partial evacuations of two Capitol buildings, news that a letter addressed to President Obama was laced with ricin, and ongoing rumors about the perpetrator of Monday's bombing of the Boston Marathon.
Heinrich, also without saying what the appointment was, replied in the custom Senate fashion: “Without objection.” Only once published did the congressional record show that Reid appointed Jaczko to the oversight panel.
The oversight committee, which was created as part of the Defense Reauthorization bill Obama signed into law in January, will include 12 congressionally appointed members, each of whom would serve for one year. These people are appointed by the congressional leaders from both parties and from both chambers and also the leaders on the key congressional committees overseeing the Armed Services. In February, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, nominated his choice, Heather Wilson, who lost out to Heinrich in New Mexico's open Senate race in 2012. The oversight panel must issue to the administration an interim report six months after the bill was enacted, which would mean this summer.
Jaczko’s appointment to this panel comes a week after Obama’s Energy Secretary nominee, Ernest Moniz, shot down rumors that he might hire Jaczko as a senior aide. “Nothing whatsoever,” Moniz said in response to a question from Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., about those rumors. “No communication whatsoever.”
A request for comment to the Energy Department’s NNSA was not immediately returned. It’s unclear if other members have been appointed yet.
Jaczko also made waves recently in the wake of multiple interviews, including with the trade publication Nuclear Intelligence Weekly and the New York Times, where he called to phase out all nuclear power plants. “What is needed is a phaseout of all nuclear plants in this country,” Jaczko said, according to a March 29 issue of the Nuclear Intelligence Weekly. “They’re not safe.”
This article appears in the April 19, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.