|Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada|
Published reports tend to portray Southern Company board member Kristine Svinicki as an accomplished nuclear engineer and policy advisor, serving on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) under three presidents, longer than any other commission member. But a 2012 Reuters article paints Svinicki as a divisive political figure, with one U.S. senator, at the time, even accusing her of lying to Congress.
Reuters reports that Svinicki is a political ally of former U.S. Senator and Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and that raises questions about conflicts of interests.
Here's why: (1) According to Reuters, Svinicki already has been part of taking favorable action on Southern Company's behalf, helping to approve a license for the company to operate the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant in Georgia; (2) Her ties to Sessions could be particularly dicey; (3) Svinicki now sits on the Southern Company board, and the law firm that represents the company before the NRC is Birmingham's Balch & Bingham;(4) During Jeff Sessions' political career, his top two financial backers were Alabama Power (a Southern Company subsidiary) and Balch & Bingham; (5) According to its own statement, Southern Company added Svinicki to its board, in part, because she was the former Chairwoman of the NRC and a policy advisor on nuclear energy for various federal entities in Washington, DC. (6) Longtime Alabama attorney Donald Watkins -- who has filed a criminal RICO complaint against Southern Company with the U.S. Department of Justice, plus a complaint with the NRC challenging the company's fitness to operate a nuclear-power facility due to its alleged involvement in racketeering activities -- said "Ms. Svinicki's board appointment appears to be a classic example of influence peddling."
In other words, Svinicki's appointment apparently was about her influence, not her expertise. That suggests she is a political animal, one with a history of making favorable rulings for Southern Company. That raises this troubling question: Does Svinicki take her marching orders from Jeff Sessions, and if so, does that mean any issue coming before a federal agency is likely to be rigged in Southern Company's favor?
Svinicki seems to have the credentials and intellect to rise above any chicanery. But the Reuters report shows that she has been willing to get down into the political mud-wrestling pit before. Writes Roberta Rampton under the headline "Turmoil at U.S. nuclear regulator spills into Congress":
A toxic internal battle that has scarred the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as it works on historic reforms now threatens to hold up the work of the U.S. Senate as leaders spar over an opening on the five-member panel.
Senate Republican leaders want the White House to renominate Kristine Svinicki, a Republican whose term expires in June. Republicans believe the process is being held up because she, along with three other commission members, accused the current NRC chairman, a Democrat, of bullying women.
“There is no legitimate reason for Commissioner Svinicki not to have been renominated and reconfirmed by now. And any further delay is unacceptable,” said Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday.
A leading Democrat, from a state familiar with nuclear-energy issues, did not agree with McConnell's take:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, is vehemently opposed to the idea, and says Svinicki is too close to the nuclear industry she regulates and does not deserve the job.
A vacancy could cause gridlock along party lines at the commission and delay safety reforms at U.S. nuclear plants that the NRC mandated after Japan’s nuclear disaster in 2011. Republicans are rallying behind Svinicki as they try to improve their ratings among female voters in the run-up to the November 6 presidential election.
Jeff Sessions made it clear he wanted Svinicki to remain on the board. Was that because he knew she would be a favorable voice for Southern Company and Balch & Bingham, his political benefactors?
Senator Jeff Sessions said last month that Svinicki “should not be forced to leave” the commission when her term ends. “I’m not going to let that happen ... even if we have to bring the Senate to a grinding halt,” he said.
McConnell, Sessions and other senior Senate Republicans are slated to speak to reporters about the brewing controversy that has already revived past accusations about lies, bullying and revenge at the helm of the nuclear regulator.
As for political battles, Svinicki did not shy away from them:
Last year, Svinicki and the three other commissioners at the NRC - two Democrats, two Republicans - took the unprecedented step of complaining to the White House about the management style of Gregory Jaczko, the NRC chairman.
Their concerns were made public in December during hearings on Capitol Hill, where the commissioners accused Jaczko - a former Reid staffer - of berating senior women NRC staff members, bringing them to tears in front of others.
McConnell questioned whether Svinicki’s renomination was being “held up in retaliation for speaking up against a rogue chairman who bullies his subordinates.”
Jaczko denied intentionally threatening others.
Reid said Jaczko was the victim of what he called a “witch hunt,” because he aggressively sought safety reforms in the wake of Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster.
The NRC is in the midst of mandating costly changes for the nation’s 104 nuclear plants, owned by companies such as Exelon and Entergy Corp. It also recently approved licenses for the first new U.S. plants in more than 30 years, owned by Southern Co and Scana Corp.
Jaczko cast the lone dissenting vote against the new licenses (including the Southern Company license for Plant Vogtle).
Svinicki was in the middle of another controversy that arose in 2012:
Reid said Svinicki disqualified herself from the job by lying during a 2007 hearing, an aide said.
“Senator Reid opposes Commissioner Svinicki’s renomination because she lied to Congress about her past work on Yucca Mountain,” said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid, in a statement.
At the hearing, Svinicki said she had done some work related to the Yucca Mountain, a nuclear waste dump site in Nevada, that Reid successfully killed, earning the ire of many Republicans. But she said she had not worked directly on the license.
Technical reports authored by Svinicki during her time at the Energy Department seem to show she was much more intimately involved in Yucca, but Svinicki maintains she did not mischaracterize the extent of her work.If Svinicki's spot goes unfilled, the NRC could face gridlock on some of its votes - as could the Senate, if Republicans make good on threats to tie up business because of the dispute.
It would not be the first time an NRC appointment disrupts the work of the Senate. In 2005, when Jaczko was first put forward for a Democratic commissioner spot on the NRC, Reid held up about 175 other political appointments from then-President George W. Bush until Republicans lifted their objections.