Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has had a tough year. The normally obscure agency was thrust into the limelight after a triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011. Since then, even while the regulator has been wracked by a very public internal feud, it has also moved forward, issuing the first construction and operating licenses for new U.S. nuclear reactors in almost 35 years. The embattled chairman spoke with National Journal about the challenges of his job. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ After Fukushima, some countries vowed to phase out nuclear energy. Why have the United States and President Obama stayed the course?
JACZKO There was no reason to take any really drastic action. We have a strong, solid regulatory program here with a talented staff. As the commission looked at all these issues, we decided that plants could continue to operate and changes would need to be made. Now we’re beginning to implement those changes.
NJ How is it going?
JACZKO We’ve got a long way to go, and we really need to shoot to have all these things implemented within five years. That’s an aggressive schedule, but I think it’s a doable schedule.
NJ Why is the five-year deadline so important?
JACZKO I’m just a firm believer that issues need to be resolved. I don’t think it benefits the agency, it doesn’t benefit the industry, it doesn’t benefit the American people if we let these things linger.
NJ Are we are prepared for a Fukushima-like situation?
JACZKO The likelihood of something like that happening in this country is very, very low. We have a robust system to deal with natural hazards like earthquakes, flooding, tornadoes, and hurricanes. We believe it’s very strong and provides a good measure of safety.
NJ The commission earlier this year voted to approve the construction of two nuclear reactors at Southern Company’s Vogtle plant in Georgia, the first such approval in nearly 35 years. The vote was 4-1, with you dissenting. Why?
JACZKO We’ve got these two things going on at once—two significant efforts. We have this work to look at licensing new reactors, and then we have this work to look at the lessons learned from the Fukushima accident; in some way, these things need to be kind of tied together. I thought the right way to do that was to put in place what we call a license condition—some statement in their license that says, “Before you operate, you have to make sure you have done all of the things that we know you’re going to need to do for the Fukushima response.”
JACZKO If you’re a homeowner selling your house, and you have the home inspection done, you have to make those improvements before you’re going to be able to go through with your sale of the house. Once you sell the house, as the previous homeowner, you don’t have any obligation any more. Once we issue that license, we’ve made a statement to everyone that we believe this plant can be safe to operate.
NJ Obama suspended plans for a nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The U.S. has yet to deal with
its nuclear-waste problem. How do you respond to criticism that you were doing the bidding of your former boss, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, in pushing for Yucca Mountain’s shutdown?
JACZKO The president made a decision that he wasn’t going to pursue the application. Congress provided us no funding to pursue the application, so it really was a fairly simple decision for us. There really isn’t anything else we could do.
NJ Did the recent blowup—your four fellow commissioners sent a letter to the White House criticizing your leadership—have anything to do with the Yucca Mountain decision?
JACZKO It was difficult for a lot of people, and I think that’s certainly been a piece of this. We have people who are unafraid to speak up; that’s what you want in a regulator.
NJ What else might have contributed to the blowup?
JACZKO I’ve certainly been committed to doing my job, to ensuring that the agency continues to stay focused on our mission and our responsibility. If anything I ever did [was] misinterpreted or viewed in a way that wasn’t positive, I certainly appreciated hearing that; I’m always looking for ways that I can do my job better.
NJ Has this infighting affected the commission’s work?
JACZKO The agency has been doing its job. We dealt with natural disasters in the Midwest; we dealt with the Fukushima accident; we dealt with the first new reactor licenses in decades; we’ve continued to provide strong oversight over all the existing power reactors. I think the agency is performing well.
NJ Has the public and congressional attention gotten in the way of the agency doing its job?
JACZKO I always welcome the oversight; I think it’s a good thing. Disagreements aren’t necessarily signs of a problem. We should have disagreements because that’s the reason we have five different people on the commission with different expertise—so they can bring different viewpoints. If everybody is always agreeing, I’d be a little suspicious.
This article appears in the April 7, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.