Politics & Policy

Mr. Jaczko Went to Washington, and Look What Happened

Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko testifies on Capitol Hill in 2011. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Former NRC chairman’s Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator reveals more than he intended.

Former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko landed on a provocative title for his memoir tracing the trajectory of his political career and opinion of nuclear energy.

In Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator, Jaczko styles himself as a wonkish version of Jefferson Smith, the iconic hero of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. While Jimmy Stewart’s character gave up his post as head of the Boy Rangers to trek to D.C., Jaczko, we are told, abandoned a future in academia, seeking “to use science to improve the world.”

Yet why Mr. Jaczko goes to Washington and stays there remains vague. There, Jaczko worked for then-Representative Ed Markey (D., Mass.) and, later, former senator Harry Reid (D., Nev.), two members with distinct and divisive positions on nuclear issues. We learn little of his views regarding nuclear power during his purportedly formative years as a congressional staffer.

We learn nothing of why Jaczko found these jobs and the embroiling legislative battles attractive, or whether he had an affinity for either of his bosses’ positions. Nor does Jaczko give any insight for the reasons he accepted Reid’s suggestion to pursue nomination to the NRC beyond his self-reported response: “Sure.”

For a book that, in Jaczko’s words, details “a series of events that changed my view about nuclear power,” the absence of any disclosure as to his early views makes it impossible to discern whether there was ever any evolution of thought.

The book proceeds to summarize four accidents from the 60-year history of nuclear energy, as well as select regulatory battles during Jaczko’s seven-year stint (2005–12) on the NRC. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, he reports, led him to the “truth we must confront” and the point of his book: that “the continued use of nuclear power will lead to catastrophe in this country or somewhere else in the world.”

Jaczko’s description of these nuclear accidents is worse than perfunctory. It’s sketchy. There is no mention of actual human injury, harmful exposure to radiation, or death for the simple reason that they did not happen. But because nuclear power is complex, the layman’s mind easily conflates nuclear accidents with the atomic bomb and assumes the worst.

Those who talk of nuclear “accidents,” without information describing the nature and outcomes of the accidents, rely on their readers’ uninformed emotions to reach poor conclusions. Which is precisely what Jaczko does.

However, even for the lay reader the book holds at least a few clues that there is more to Jaczko’s story than he lets on:

  1. Jaczko displays an unwillingness to understand or fairly represent the arguments of those who disagree with him. Much of the book dwells on regulatory battles among his fellow four commissioners, Congress, and the nuclear industry. Jaczko consistently reduces these to a battle between himself on the side of science and safety facing opponents sold out to the “money, power, and promise” of the nuclear-power industry. There is never a moment of honest reflection regarding why his fellow commissioners often opposed him or why he was unable to persuade more individuals even within his own party.
  2. Jaczko reveals his own inconsistent values and standards, which ultimately expose his unacknowledged bias. What guided him as a regulator, he says, was an unapologetic commitment to “assess facts and make independent decisions” with honesty and integrity. But this compass was missing in perhaps his most infamous moment as NRC commissioner: unilaterally ending the scientific technical review of a nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain. While Jaczko later fought hard to have a post-Fukushima report published (“I knew that to have any chance of making an impact, the entire document needed to be made public”), he fought just as hard to bury the Yucca Mountain reports. He offers no explanation for why he believed Yucca Mountain technically deficient or what authority he had to make that determination alone. (The courts later overturned his decision.) His unacknowledged bias likely comes from the politics of Senator Reid, whose influence in Jaczko’s confirmation, chairmanship, and resignation is clearly depicted.
  3. Jaczko ultimately demands something impossible and otherwise nonexistent in energy choices: absolute certainty. No perfect energy resource exists, and tradeoffs are inherent. But with nuclear power, the critique is even more absurd, like calling the Yankees a poor team because they’ve lost 7,781 games — ignoring their 10,000-plus victories, 40 pennants, and 27 World Series championships. Over the past six decades, the nuclear industry has safely operated more than 100 reactors, providing roughly 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs. There indeed have been accidents, but only one, at Three Mile Island, actually released radiation. That accident caused no deaths or radiological health problems to the public; in fact, it demonstrated that the U.S. nuclear industry could control an accident safely. Professional baseball has produced several hundred fan fatalities, yet not a single American has died from civilian nuclear power.

Any similarities between Mr. Jaczko and Mr. Smith end with their relocations to Washington. Mr. Jaczko’s trip to Washington had significant, negative impacts and delivered quite a different message. As Rod Adams, a former Navy submarine officer and now author of the website Atomic Insights, writes: “I highly recommend Jaczko’s ‘Confessions’ for people . . . wondering why the industry seems to be struggling so hard to compete with inferior power sources.”

Perhaps it will spark some true, evolutionary thinking.

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Katie Tubb is a policy analyst specializing in energy and environmental issues for The Heritage Foundation’s Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

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