NRC chairman resigns amid battle over lessons from Fukushima

In his three years as chairman, Gregory Jaczko wrangled with other NRC members over the direction of nuclear power plant safety regulations and over his leadership style.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
In this Dec. 15, 2011 file photo, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, announced Monday he would resign from the five-member commission that oversees US nuclear power plant safety after a tenure in which he wrangled with other members of the commission over the direction of safety regulations.

Mr. Jaczko's chairmanship, which began with tumult three years ago over the NRC's controversial decision to cancel the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository – now concludes on the heels of a tumultuous year attempting to implement "lessons learned" from the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. He announced his resignation amid an ongoing battle over his proposals to tighten safety regulations at US nuclear power plants in the wake of the Japanese disaster.

On Jazcko's watch, the NRC responded to major incidents at reactors across the United States including flooding, an earthquake, and tornados as well as serious mechanical problems. Notably, Jaczko activated the commission's emergency response authority and personally directed the NRC's initial response in the days after a huge tidal wave hit the Daiichi plant on March 10, 2011 – knocking out backup generators.

Jaczko and NRC staff monitored the unfolding crisis around the clock and made key decisions. He told Americans in Japan to stay at least 50-miles away from the unfolding meltdowns. And he created a task force to recommend steps the US should take to reinforce safety measures for US reactors.

But such unilateral decisions became a flashpoint for political upset among the other four commissioners and within the nuclear power industry. The commissioners questioned whether or not Jaczko had assumed too much authority and power over NRC operations in the immediate aftermath of the meltdown – or had cut the other commissioners out of the communications loop. A June report by the NRC inspector general found that despite concerns over his management style, he had done nothing illegal.

Turmoil at the agency continued last summer as the other commissioners questioned or opposed several of the dozen major recommendations of the Fukushima task force Jaczko had convened. Those recommendations included clarifying the NRC's own regulations, upgrading the "design basis" or planned-for capability to protect reactors and their safety systems from earthquakes and floods, and strengthening reactor operators’ capacity to deal with station blackout situations.

By Fall 2011, a new internal crisis was developing over a new inspector general's report requested by Rep. Darryl Issa (R) of Calif. to investigate claims of management malfeasance, including "bullying" female staff and fellow commissioners. Jaczko defended himself before a House committee and in a press conference last month. His sudden resignation Monday comes with yet another IG report expected on personnel issues.

"After nearly eight years on the Commission, I am announcing my resignation as chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, effective upon the confirmation of my successor," Jazcko said in a statement.

"After an incredibly productive three years as chairman, I have decided this is the appropriate time to continue my efforts to ensure public safety in a different forum. This is the right time to pass along the public safety torch to a new chairman who will keep a strong focus on carrying out the vital mission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission."

Despite the pressure on Jaczko, the White House proclaimed publicly up until last month that it backed him. For its part, the nuclear power industry, which had tersely noted "the question of a chilled working environment" at the NRC after allegations of yelling at staff, seemed to soften in its parting assessment.

"We have had differences with the chairman on how best to achieve our mutually shared safety goals," said the Nuclear Energy Institute president Marvin Fertel in a statement. "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."

There was, however, far less bonhomie on Capitol Hill as combatants over nuclear regulation and safety issues sought to cast Jaczko's tenure in their own way.

"The resignation of Chairman Jaczko will close an ugly chapter and allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to focus on its mission – ensuring the safe operations of the nation's nuclear plants," Representative Issa said in a statement.

Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma said Jazcko's "inappropriate behavior" had undermined the NRC. "It was abundantly clear that Chairman Jaczko used his office to undermine the NRC to the point that all four of his fellow commissioners wrote to the president to ask for assistance as a last resort," Mr. Inhofe said in a statement.

But Jaczko's supporters noted that he had been subjected to relentless personal attacks by his fellow commissioners and nuclear industry supporters.

“Greg has led a Sisyphean fight against some of the nuclear industry’s most entrenched opponents of strong, lasting safety regulations, often serving as the lone vote in support of much-needed safety upgrades recommended by the Commission’s safety staff," said Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Mass. in a statement. "I call upon the White House to nominate a successor with the same dedication, independence and safety record. His shoes will be very hard to fill."

Nuclear safety watchdogs, however, say the fight over Jaczko's management style or lack thereof belies the fundamental conflict over whether or not the NRC is an agency that is capable of conducting its mission – or is too close to the industry it oversees.

“The NRC’s failure to protect the public existed long before Gregory Jaczko became the NRC chairman,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, a physicist and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear industry watchdog, said in a statement following the April congressional hearings. “Congress should not be sidetracked into thinking he is the source of the problem or that his removal would be the solution.”

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