As a Senate committee Thursday assesses how U.S. regulators have responded since Japan’s nuclear-reactor disaster nearly three years ago, a central figure in the post-Fukushima era at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is unlikely to even be mentioned.
Gregory Jaczko, who resigned as NRC chairman in 2012 due to a roiling controversy over his management style, has been an outspoken critic of nuclear safety in this country, but is no longer working full-time on industry issues. It might even be said that when the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee meets with the five-member NRC on Thursday morning, Jaczko will be persona non grata.
Jaczko, who declined to be interviewed this week, has kept a low profile. A former aide to Sen. Harry Reid, Jaczko was appointed last spring by the majority leader to a new congressional advisory panel established under the 2013 defense authorization bill to assess the effectiveness of the National Nuclear Security Administration, an Energy Department agency that manages America’s nuclear weapons. But nearly a year later, there is no record that the panel has met, nor will anyone at the NNSA or the Energy Department comment about its work.
Indeed, Jaczko has surfaced publicly only a few times since leaving the NRC in June 2012 after more than seven years as a commissioner and three years as chairman. In each instance, the Cornell University graduate with a doctorate in particle physics blasted the nuclear industry for ignoring safety issues and economic problems.
“I think it’s time that we need to reconsider prolonging the lifetime of many of these reactors,” Jaczko said last summer at a conference on nuclear safety in San Diego, where he also expressed little confidence that a nuclear plant run by Southern California Edison could be reopened safely after it was shut down following a radioactive leak and other problems.
“I’ve never seen a movie that’s set 200 years in the future and the planet is being powered by fission reactors — that’s nobody’s vision of the future,” he said in an October interview with IEEE Spectrum, a publication for electrical engineers. “This is not a future technology. It’s an old technology, and it serves a useful purpose. But that purpose is running its course.”
Jaczko added: “The industry is going away. Four reactors are being built, but there’s absolutely no money and no desire to finance more plants than that. So in 20 or 30 years we’re going to have very few nuclear power plants in this country — that’s just a fact.”
Jaczko’s comments have earned him scorn from supporters of the nuclear industry. “He has spent at least a decade and a half misusing his apparently impressive brain power in destructive ways by focusing it on halting the beneficial use of nuclear energy,” wrote Rod Adams, a former nuclear plant operator, in a blog called Atomic Insights.
Critics of the industry consider Jaczko something of a hero for his willingness to challenge the status quo at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The reality is Jaczko was only one voice among five,” said Tim Judson, acting executive director of the Nuclear Information and Research Service, a watchdog group based in Takoma Park, Md. “He was a voice in the wilderness at the NRC.”
Unfortunately for him, Jaczko’s voice can apparently be grating to some. His downfall at the NRC began with reports that he was abusive to staffers, particularly women, and failed to communicate well with fellow commissioners. At the height of the controversy about his tenure, Jaczko called an impromptu news conference and adamantly denied allegations that his management had resulted in a dysfunctional NRC. “I want to assure you that none of these issues are a distraction to the agency,” he said. He also said charges that he was abusive were “categorically untrue,” a phrase he repeated numerous times during a 30-minute meeting with the media.
He never said so, but Jaczko may have felt isolated for voicing concerns about the nuclear industry. Twice he was the only dissenting vote when the commission approved permits for four new reactors in the South, and he openly expressed anxiety about reactor safety following the Fukushima meltdown in March 2011, triggered by the one-two punch of an earthquake and tsunami. Defenders of the U.S. industry insist that such a rare natural disaster could not occur in North America, and regardless, U.S. safety standards for reactors are far more stringent than those in Japan.
Jaczko also suffered from the perception that he was on the NRC to do Reid’s bidding and kill plans for a nuclear-waste depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Not long after Jaczko became chairman, President Obama put the long-planned project on ice.
After six months of turmoil, Jaczko announced in May 2012 that he would step down when his replacement was confirmed, and in June he turned over the NRC gavel to Allison Macfarlane, a geologist and former professor of environmental science at George Mason University.