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 Daiichi 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.
In the corporate world, mediators start by meeting separately with people to find out their views on the issues and listen to their grievances, said Jon Masters and Alan Rudnick of Masters-Rudnick & Associates LLC, who work with warring boards.
"People will be emotional about something, and they need to vent. But you don't want them to vent publicly, or at anybody else," Rudnick said.
"Then everybody can actually get down to a more rational look at what's going on, what are the issues that are involved, what would be ways of resolving those issues," he said.
Most successful boardroom mediations are kept private, an option no longer possible for the nuclear agency in the fishbowl of Washington, said Masters.
"A board doesn't like to say, 'We were lost, we got a facilitator in here who told us how to do our job,'" he said.
EASIER TO SHAKE UP DYNAMICS
To ease the dispute, commissioners would need to buy in to changes both in structure and style, and have a shared understanding of their responsibilities, and standards by which they will be held accountable, Susskind said.
"People have lost trust. You build trust by making contingent commitments going forward, and then as people do what they said they'd do, trust gets built."
It would be easier done if the White House shook up the dynamics of the agency, perhaps by assigning another commissioner as chairman, while keeping on Jaczko as a commissioner.
Jaczko has said he is staying put.
It would be politically awkward for the White House to demote him now, especially leading up the 2012 election, Susskind noted. It would risk angering Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has defended Jaczko, a former aide, and could be portrayed by Democrats as caving to Republicans.
But unless it's fixed, the fight risks becoming even more of a political thorn. "The longer it doesn't get handled, the more it becomes an invitation to groups with an ax to grind to jump in," he said.
"How much energy, effort and capital does he want to spend on it? I don't think that who the chair is right now is worth this battle," Susskind said.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)