On April 20, 2005, two men appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works for hearings relating to their appointments as members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). One of, them, Peter Lyon, presented credentials including three patents, 160 technical publications, and three decades of experience working at Los Alamos National Lab. The other, Gregory Jaczko, had no patents, no publications, and no technical work experience whatsoever.
The contrast in qualifications between Jaczko and Lyon, or between Jaczko and any other person who might reasonably be suggested for NRC membership, was, and remains, comical. Unfortunately, however, the Jaczko appointment was not a case of some joker, through Eddie Murphy–style antics, faking his way into a position of authority (although Jaczko did pretend that his degree in abstract physics — that is, secular theology — provided him with an education in nuclear engineering). Rather, Jaczko — who, since finishing college in 1999, had worked as an anti-nuclear political operative, first for Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) and then for Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.), was forced upon the Bush administration by Reid as a condition for approving any other NRC appointments.
The fact that Jaczko had been heavily involved in Reid’s efforts to wreck the Department of Energy’s program to set up a permanent nuclear-waste repository under Yucca Mountain, Nev., raised grave questions among the senators at the confirmation hearing about his likely objectivity in dealing with that issue as a member of the NRC. Attempting to alleviate this concern, Jaczko promised the senators that he would recuse himself from all decisions bearing upon Yucca Mountain for one year after his appointment.
When Sen. James Inhofe asked Jaczko if he would recuse himself for the rest of his tenure on the commission as well, Jaczko declined — but made several promises about how he would go about his job:
Mr. Chairman, to answer that question, I think I want to say, first of all, that I do believe I can be fair and objective on all matters, including Yucca Mountain, that may come before me as a commissioner. I agreed to recuse myself for one year, because I thought it was appropriate, given, I believe, the perceptions about my ability to be objective and fair. My hope is that within one year, I will have demonstrated that absolutely I can be fair and objective. My hope is that at the end of my recusal, that the answer to that question will be self-evident, whether or not I need to further recuse myself. But I will certainly continue to discuss with our Office of General Counsel, as well as other members of the Commission, what my appropriate action should be on any matters, including Yucca Mountain, after that recusal.
Senator Inhofe replied by citing the case of NRC commissioner James R. Curtis, who recused himself for his entire tenure from cases involving the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. “I would certainly review that,” Jaczko said. “I am not familiar with all the details of his circumstances, and I will certainly review that with the Office of General Counsel and seek their advice on the similarities with my circumstance.”
In 2009, President Obama (who, as senator from Illinois, had attended the 2005 hearing and voted for Jaczko’s confirmation) promoted Jaczko to NRC chairman. In that capacity, Jaczko has violated his promise to the Senate on every point. Far from being “fair and objective” in dealing with Yucca Mountain, in 2010 he issued a directive stopping an NRC staff evaluation of the project, precisely because the study would have shown that the project was sound. He then used the resulting lack of safety data as an excuse to order work on the Yucca Mountain project to be stopped altogether. Breaking his promise to consult other members of the commission on Yucca Mountain matters, according to a report made public by NRC inspector general Hubert Bell last week, Jaczko “strategically withheld” information from the other commissioners and “was not forthcoming” about his intention to use his arbitrary directive to stop the project.
The issue of Jaczko’s wrecking operation against the Yucca Mountain repository goes well beyond his dishonesty before the Senate confirmation hearing. The larger matter is the fate of the repository itself, a project upon which the nation has already spent several billion dollars. Currently, in the absence of such a repository, nuclear waste is stored in cooling pools on reactor sites, which are generally located fairly close to major metropolitan areas. Clearly, it is strongly in the interest of public safety that these materials be moved from their current suburban locations to a remote desert facility, such as Yucca Mountain.