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Deference to industry trumps nuclear safety in the U.S., warns a controversial former regulator

Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator

Gregory B. Jaczko
Simon and Schuster
2019
207 pp.
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Less than a year after the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, physicist Gregory B. Jaczko tried to break the “first commandment” of nuclear regulation: Thou shalt not deny a license to operate a reactor. As chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), he knew that the tradition was to encourage doomed applications to be withdrawn. But when one company refused, Jaczko dug in his heels and opposed the license. It turned out to be a futile gesture that the other commissioners opposed. But it was one of many examples, he contends, of the weaknesses in the nation’s top nuclear regulatory body and an exemplar of its obeisance to the nuclear power industry.

Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator is one part engrossing memoir and another part seething diatribe, depicting a government agency that routinely caves to industry pressure. The book cannot help but also feel like a rationalization of Jaczko’s own actions during his conflict-ridden tenure as chairman, a position offered to him in 2009 by President Barack Obama.

Jaczko first came to the commission in 2005, after working for Nevada senator Harry Reid fighting the project to store the nation’s high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain. He had a notoriously abrasive personality, and that did not change while at the NRC.

Yucca Mountain set the tone for Jaczko’s tenure, and his autocratic leadership style alienated Republicans and Democrats alike. When he terminated a licensing review for the storage project, the other commissioners interpreted it as an illegal abuse of authority. The ensuing political fracas convinced Jaczko that the nuclear industry used the NRC as a tool for promoting rather than regulating nuclear power. He believes that a national repository for radioactive waste puts too much responsibility on the taxpayer. “No other industry is able to complain so loudly that someone else has failed to take care of its waste,” he laments.

The answer is to stop producing nuclear waste, argues Jaczko, and indeed stop producing nuclear power at all. He wishes that as chairman, he’d “had the courage to say this, but my courage had its limits.”

Most of Jaczko’s short book hammers on the theme that industry lobbyists hold sway over the would-be regulators. He highlights the longstanding concept of “enforcement discretion” and skewers it as one of nuclear regulation’s “greatest oxymorons.”

Rather than demand safety compliance, the NRC historically has allowed nuclear plants to develop alternative approaches and has granted exceptions and exemptions. Recounting an episode in which he tried to abolish enforcement discretion in fire safety, Jaczko writes: “What happened over the next several weeks was more brutal than Roman imperial succession.”

The political infighting was particularly intense after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Jaczko visited Japan and grew impatient with the “litany of guarantees” from industry about American nuclear facilities. He tried to insist on new requirements to mitigate accidents triggered by natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis. One internal NRC report drafted after Fukushima criticized the practice of relying on voluntary industry initiative to address safety concerns. Jaczko’s descriptions of other commissioners’ attempts to quash or edit the report provide a disturbing glimpse of the dynamic of trust and betrayal within the agency.

Confessions comes across as a story of one man and his loyal staff against a whole industry and its political toadies. Jaczko portrays himself as a naïve scientist, pushing hard for progressive reforms amid a corrupt bureaucracy. His critics might not be persuaded.

Toward the end of his tenure, Jaczko’s fellow commissioners lodged a formal complaint against him, including accusations of mistreatment of women in the workplace. He survived the coup (his term) but ultimately resigned in 2012 at the request of his old mentor Harry Reid, who wanted to use his position as a political bargaining chip.

Although Jaczko’s account will become standard reading as an antinuclear book, his reasons have more to do with regulation than nuclear energy per se. Jaczko sees two paths ahead. One has a sustainable future with nuclear reactors that includes widespread recognition that accidents will happen and a greater commitment to safety. The other path is the one he witnessed as NRC chairman, featuring waning public trust in a secretive, uncooperative industry that regards safety regulations as unfair and cumbersome.

The problem that plagued the old Atomic Energy Commission—that the promoters and regulators were too cozy with each other—is clearly alive and well. Jaczko describes the relationship as a “corrupt, toxic environment.” It may be a hard warning to hear, but it comes from one who had a fuller view of the nuclear regulatory landscape than most.

About the author

The reviewer is at the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331, USA.