ROCKVILLE, Maryland (Reuters) - Drawn and stone-faced, the five members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sat side by side at a table, speaking the complex language of engineering acronyms and numbers with people who run nuclear plants.
It was business as usual on Tuesday at an NRC briefing on mathematical risk models used to prevent fires, despite the infighting that has broken out in a very public way at an agency that critics say has become dysfunctional.
And with no changes to leadership in sight, they will have to work together as they oversee a call for massive reforms of the large but aging U.S. nuclear power system.
It is the first time the group met publicly since four of the commissioners - two Democrats and two Republicans - took the unprecedented and risky step of formally complaining to the White House about Chairman Gregory Jaczko.
They did not address the spat at the briefing. But they will be grilled about it on Wednesday and Thursday in Congress when lawmakers will demand answers about what went wrong in their relationship and whether it is beyond repair.
The rift comes as the agency considers an overhaul of its safety regulations after an earthquake and tsunami wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in March.
The changes are expected to cost millions of dollars for existing plants owned by companies such as Exelon and Entergy Corp.
The commissioners - William Magwood, Kristine Svinicki, William Ostendorff and George Apostolakis - say Jaczko has created a toxic work environment through intimidation and bullying. Jaczko has defended his record and said he has always been professional.
Jaczko has promised to try to improve things “and has proposed that all of the commissioners meet with a trusted third party to promote a better dialog,” William Daley, White House Chief of Staff, told them in a letter on Monday night.
The White House expressed confidence in all five commissioners but warned them to try to get along, perhaps with help from a mediator.
Industry observers say the commission’s wheels will keep turning amid the row, noting it has continued to meet and make decisions since October, when the commissioners lodged their complaint.
“Even in this extraordinarily dysfunctional environment, you’re able to get some of this business done,” said Paul Dickman, who was chief of staff to the previous NRC Chairman Dale Klein.
Over time, though, the conflict could wear on staff at the regulator, he said.
The commissioners serve staggered terms and change could happen as term’s end. Svinicki, a Republican appointee, will see her term expire in June 2012, followed by Jaczko in June 2013.
“I’ve been on commissions with people I didn’t like much but the basic work goes on,” said Peter Bradford, who was a commissioner from 1977 to 1982 when the NRC grappled with reforms after the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania.
The NRC is expected to rule soon on new plants proposed by Southern Co and SCANA Corp, and new reactor designs by Westinghouse and others.
Those technical decisions driven by staff work are unlikely to be affected by the relationship issues at the helm of the commission, said Ed Batts, a partner at law firm DLA Piper.
But broader policies could stall, including Fukushima reforms, he said, noting a majority of commissioners had already voted for a more methodical approach with additional studies than quick reforms advocated by Jaczko.
Daley’s letter is not likely to put the story of the squabbling to rest. Lawmakers are apt to draw out more awkward details of the relationship gone wrong at hearings this week.
While Jaczko regularly gives speeches and interviews, the other four commissioners have stayed out of the spotlight.
“These are risk-averse nuclear engineering types,” Batts said, calling their letter an unprecedented step at an agency known for being a low-key regulatory “backwater.”
Jaczko has support from powerful backers on Capitol Hill leading up to the hearings, including his former boss, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Some have criticized Jaczko as being too political. But he has won praise from others as being independent from the nuclear power industry, which did not approve of his appointment.
“I believe, with the exception of Jaczko, that the NRC has an unhealthy co-dependent relationship with its licensees,” said Robert Alvarez, an Energy Department official during the Clinton administration and now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.
“Whether or not Jaczko behaved inappropriately is a side-show to a larger battle going on about the safety of an aged U.S. reactor fleet and an industry that has very much had its way for nearly 20 years until, perhaps, now.”
Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York; Editing by Russell Blinch and John O'Callaghan