Whatever Happened to Gregory Jaczko?

WASHINGTON - MARCH 30: Greg Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, arrives to testify on Capitol Hill on March 30, 2011 in Washington, DC. The hearing focused on nuclear power plant safety in light of the earthquake and nuclear plant troubles in Japan. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
National Journal
Mike Magner
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Mike Magner
Jan. 29, 2014, 1 p.m.

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.

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