Some Saw NRC Chairman's Exit Coming

Gregory Jaczko, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman, sits in his office.  (National Journal)

Waking up to the news on Monday morning that Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko would be stepping down from his post was not exactly a surprise for many lawmakers and those plugged into the NRC's ongoing Washington soap opera.

In a statement announcing his resignation, Jaczko said that now is the "appropriate time" to step down. "This is the right time to pass along the public-safety torch to a new chairman who will keep a strong focus on carrying out the vital mission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," he said in a 500-word statement.

(RELATED: NRC Chairman Steps Down)

Jaczko, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been at the center of a political firestorm since late last year, when the other four commissioners complained to the White House that his leadership style had created a difficult work environment at NRC, which oversees the nation's 104 nuclear plants. The controversy boiled up again last month when Reid urged the White House not to reappoint a Republican commissioner, Kristine Svinicki, who had criticized Jaczko for verbally abusing women at the agency. Despite Reid's pleas, the White House nominated Svinicki for a second term on the commission after her current appointment expires June 30.

Given all of this, Jaczko's resignation was a not a surprise for Reid, a Democratic leadership aide said on the condition of anonymity.  With the prospect of a Senate confirmation hearing on Svinicki's nomination in the next few weeks — coupled with the possibility that the NRC Inspector General could be issuing a report soon on the complaints made about Jaczko last year — "things were just tough for him and only going to get tougher," the aide said.

The IG report specifically focusing on the leadership controversy involving Jaczko could come at any time. While the exact timing of the report is still up in the air, sources say that it could come in the next few weeks. And regardless of the findings, the report will include all of the testimony about him, including commissioners' descriptions of behavior that they say created a chilled environment at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md.

A separate IG report last June had criticized the then-chairman for not being "forthcoming" with his fellow commissioners leading up to the shutdown of the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository in Nevada.

"Given the Inspector General's previous findings, the unprecedented letter of concern about his management style and treatment of career employees by the entire bipartisan commission, and the fact that a second report from the Inspector General is expected soon — Jaczko's resignation is both long overdue and unsurprising," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said on Monday. Murkowski is ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"The only thing surprising about his resignation is the fact that the Obama administration has remained silent for more than a year after allegations of Jaczko's offensive behavior surfaced," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Some saw Jaczko's resignation coming a month ago, when the embattled chairman unexpectedly called a Friday-afternoon press conference to dismiss allegations that he verbally abused women. The announcement of his plan to appear at the National Press Club had many thinking that Jaczko was going to resign at that point; instead he used the occasion to repeat several times that the allegations about his were "categorically untrue."

Another key Republican senator on energy issues, Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe of Oklahoma, essentially said good riddance to Jaczko when the news broke on Monday.

"Given the numerous reports of Chairman Jaczko's failed leadership at the NRC, it was right of him to step down today," Inhofe said in a statement.

Democrats such as Reid and Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., credited Jaczko for his work on the commission and his commitment to nuclear safety and urged the White House to nominate a new chairman with the same focus.

"Greg was my trusted aide for many years and his talent in applying science to public policy was an asset to my staff and the state of Nevada. I wish him well in his future endeavors," Reid said in a statement. "I am confident whomever replaces Chairman Jaczko will share his commitment to protecting the safety of the American people over the interests of a single industry. This is an opportunity for the nuclear industry to demonstrate its commitment to public safety by supporting a chairperson who puts the safety of American citizens first."

White House spokesman Clark Stevens said the administration would move swiftly to nominate a new chairman.

"The president appreciates Chairman Jaczko's service and efforts to further the mission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — to license and regulate the nation's use of nuclear materials," said Stevens. "A strong and effective NRC is crucial to protecting public health and safety, promoting defense and security, and protecting the environment, and we intend to nominate a new chairman soon."

Dan Friedman contributed contributed to this article