The nuclear disaster in Japan was an opportunity for America: the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was Gregory Jaczko.
Jaczko goes to Washington
A series of accidents had brought to Washington, DC, Jaczko, a theoretical physicist burnt out with particle physics but burning with desire to see good come out of science. His technical education made it easy for him to understand the science and technology of nuclear power plants. He thought they served some kind of a useful purpose, though he was cautious about their “safety.”
He came to Washington because he wanted to do good. He knew next to nothing about Congress or its cutthroat politics.
He was fortunate in serving on the staff of the Democrat Congressman Edward Markey from Massachusetts and Democrat Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. In both cases, his cautious approach to nuclear power served him well with these two powerful politicians.
Markey wanted to increase the regulation of nuclear power and to strengthen international arms control. Reid wanted to dismantle the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump next to America’s gambling capital, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Reid was so impressed by the virtues of Jaczko (his neutral attitude towards the industry and its opponents and his commitment to public safety above all) he successfully nominated him, in 2005, to become one of the commissioners of NRC. Then with Obama becoming president, Reid insisted that Jaczko should be appointed to be the chairman of NRC.
In the belly of the nuclear beast
In his book, Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator (Simon and Schuster, 2019), Jaczko describes a brief meeting he had with Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel went straight to the point. He was brutal:
“You are a fucking asshole and nobody likes you. If we make you chairman, everyone at the NRC is going to quit… Being chairman is a very important job. I don’t expect you to make problems for the president. Do you understand that? You work for the president and you better not fuck this up.”
Jaczko was shocked by the “ferocity” of the attack on his character. “I am not an asshole,” he said to Emanuel.
This humiliation, however, convinced Jaczko that Obama did not want him in the NRC, much less its chairman. But Obama gave in to Reid, who was the Senate majority leader.
Jaczko’s three-and-a-half years tenure as the chairman of NRC was stormy. The nuclear industry and its supporters in Congress could not stand him. The idea of reform or regulation was an anathema. In fact, the industry was so successful in its propaganda it had convinced Americans nuclear power was safe: don’t expect any accident at the nuclear power plants.
The other commissioners and senior staff looked at Jaczko with suspicion and mistrust. Here was a young man, younger than most of them, being their boss and constantly probing them to protect public health and the environment.
Running Jaczko out of town
Even the Fukushima tragedy made no difference. Jaczko was convinced NRC was a hopeless case, being a subsidiary of the nuclear industry.
“I eventually got run out of town because I saw things up close that I was not meant to see: an agency overwhelmed by the industry it is supposed to regulate and a political system determined to keep it that way,” he wrote.
The Fukushima “cataclysm” finally convinced him that “nuclear power is a failed technology.” Keep using it and it will bring “catastrophe in this country or somewhere else in the world,” he wrote. […]