Nuclear chief under fire just for doing his job

It is troubling to see what is occurring in Washington with regard to the confrontation brewing over the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko and the way some in Congress are seeking to politicize Jaczko’s efforts to toughen the agency’s oversight of nuclear power safety and security in light of what occured at Fukushima, Japan.

Mr. Jaczko, a one-time staff member for Sen. Harry Reid, is eminently qualified to serve on the commission. He holds bachelor’s degrees in physics and philosophy from Cornell University and a doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of Wisconsin. But what seems to have gotten Mr. Jaczko in hot water is the fact that he is not a member of the nuclear power establishment and has been viewed as an outsider from the day he was appointed.

When he became NRC chairman in 2009, he inherited an agency that had become complacent with regard to its role as protector of the public with respect to nuclear power and nuclear safety. The agency had settled into an overly cozy relationship with the industry it was supposed to regulate and oversee.

From the beginning of his chairmanship, Mr. Jaczko has pushed for enhanced safety and security measures in the licensing of new reactor designs and in the certification of spent nuclear fuel storage and transportation systems. He has worked to strengthen the safety culture in the nuclear industry and at the commission.

Then came the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the catastrophic nuclear incident at Fukushima. Mr. Jaczko immediately recognized the serious implications the events had for nuclear power plant safety in the United States and set about to mobilize the NRC to strengthen its oversight and reassess conditions at nuclear plants in this country. He immediately ran into resistance from powerful forces in the industry and even from other commissioners who, unlike Mr. Jaczko, are industry insiders.

Instead of backing down, as NRC chairmen have done in the past when confronted by opposition from the industry they are supposed to regulate, Mr. Jaczko pressed ahead and insisted on immediately carrying out an assessment of power plant safety considering the type of natural disaster that occurred in Japan. He sought to ascertain whether U.S. plants were vulnerable to the malfunctions, especially on-site power blackouts, that contributed to the horrific consequences visited upon the Fukushima area. For this, he has become something of a pariah among industry people and their allies in Congress, who see any suggestion of safety concerns at U.S. nuclear plants as questioning the very viability of nuclear power and threatening the nuclear renaissance that was just getting momentum before Fukushima.

Make no mistake. What Mr. Jaczko is trying to accomplish and what has caused the uproar in Congress and subsequent calls for his resignation is the nuclear industry’s ill-considered reaction to badly needed changes in the industry’s safety culture. If there is to be a nuclear renaissance, the industry is going to have to come to grips with the fact that it has become overly complacent about safety.

Likewise, the NRC needs to recognize that Fukushima changed the rules for regulating safety and protecting the public from the types of multi-faceted events that combine severe natural disasters with inherent weaknesses in engineered systems and human errors in planning and response.

Mr. Jaczko’s insistence on safety first is exactly what’s needed for the U.S. nuclear industry to survive Fukushima. And once again, the nuclear power industry seems bent on killing off the messenger rather than getting the message.

Richard Bryan, a Democrat, is chairman of the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects. He is a former U.S. senator, Nevada governor, attorney general and state legislator.

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