Embattled NRC Chairman says he will leave once successor in place

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who has lately been caught in a political crossfire between Democrats and Republicans, said May 21 that he is resigning from the commission.

“After nearly eight years on the Commission, I am announcing my resignation as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, effective upon the confirmation of my successor,” said Jaczko in a prepared statement. “My responsibility and commitment to safety will continue to be my paramount priority after I leave the Commission and until my successor is confirmed.”

While his three years as chairman has been “incredibly productive,” this is the appropriate time to continue his efforts to ensure public safety in a different forum, Jaczko said. During this last year alone, the agency focus on safety has met a number of diverse challenges including the accident at the Fukushima Da-ichi reactors in Japan, and a number of severe incidents at reactors in the U.S. ranging from flooding, an earthquake and tornados to damaged plant structures and steam generator problems, he noted.

“In addition to this vigilant oversight, together we identified and began to implement lessons learned from Fukushima and completed our rigorous safety reviews for the first new reactor licenses in 30 years,” he added.

Throughout his time on the commission as both chairman and a commissioner, the agency finalized regulations to ensure new reactors are designed to withstand an aircraft impact, completed the development and implementation of a safety culture policy statement, enhanced its focus on openness and transparency, and enhanced awareness of and worked to resolve some of the most longstanding generic issues facing the nuclear industry, including sump strainer issues and fire protection, Jaczko said. Substantial progress was made in establishing a more transparent and effective oversight program for fuel cycle facilities. In addition, radioactive sources of concern are now fully protected with new security regulations and source tracking system, he added.

Jaczko has been the center of a political firefight for some time. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said April 27 that his panel is continuing to monitor Jaczko’s leadership of the nuclear agency. Upton and several other members of the committee wrote Jaczko to ensure that NRC employees don’t encounter a “chilled” work atmosphere under Jaczko. The congressional leaders said they want to see that NRC employees “feel free to raise concerns without fear of reprisal.”

The other four commissioners at the NRC, including his fellow Democrats, took the unusual move of publicly criticizing the NRC chairman last year in a congressional hearing. The commissioners have criticized Jaczko’s interaction with both members of the commission and NRC staffers.

Several GOP congressmen, already critical of Jaczko positions on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and NRC’s reaction to the Fukushima disaster, had sought his resignation.

Upton, House Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and House Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, R-Ill., said in a May 21 joint statement: “We are hopeful that the resignation of Chairman Jaczko signals a return of comity and collegiality to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that has been unfortunately absent over the last three years. We are eager for the NRC to return its focus back to safety and policy and away from personal feuds, internal struggles, and controversy. If we can learn anything from the past few years, it is that there is no place for politics at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We are hopeful that with a new chairman, the commission’s proud tradition of excellence will be restored.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) took a muted tone in its reaction. “We have had differences with the chairman on how best to achieve our mutually shared safety goals,” said NEI President and CEO Marvin Fertel. “But to his credit we’ve always had open lines of communications and a willingness to respectfully discuss the issues. This has especially been the case over the past 13 months since the accident at the Fukushima plant in Japan. We wish the chairman the best in his future endeavors.”

“Chairman Jaczko has served the interests of the public extremely well,” said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, which oversees the NRC. The chairman’s top priority “has always been right where it should be – on ensuring that our nation’s nuclear plants are being operated as safely as possible,” Sanders added. He told Brattleboro radio station WTSA-FM that Jazko’s views “did not make him particularly popular with the nuclear power industry.”

President Obama recently re-nominated Kristine Svinicki for a new term on the NRC commission. Her current term expires at the end of June. Svinicki worked for several Republicans in Congress before joining the NRC.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.