By Paul Bowersox
On May 21, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Chairman Gregory Jaczko announced that he would resign his position as soon as his successor is confirmed (Jaczko resignation statement). The New York Times in its reporting of the story noted: “The White House said it would name a successor ‘soon,’ but it is unlikely that anyone will be confirmed to succeed Dr. Jaczko for many months, ensuring continued turmoil at the deeply divided agency.”
Reaction to resignation
Reaction to this announcement “inside the Beltway” was swift and partisan. U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif.): “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.”
Jaczko clashed with other commissioners during his tenure, and the other four commissioners took the unprecedented step of signing a letter alleging bullying by the chairman, resulting in an internal commission investigation and congressional hearings in the House and Senate (December 15, March 15). Jaczko was also severely criticized for terminating a proposal to build a national high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
White House reaction
White House spokesman Clark Stevens: “A strong and effective NRC is crucial to protecting public health and safety, promoting defense and security, and protecting the environment, and we intend to nominate a new chairman soon.”
Congressional reaction: Republicans
Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Environment Committee James Inhofe (R., Okla.): “Given the numerous reports of Chairman Jaczko’s failed leadership at the NRC, it was right of him to step down today.”
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.): “Dr. Jaczko’s troubling behavior as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had clearly resulted in a hostile work environment for women that ran counter to acceptable norms of workplace equality and that threatened to undermine the mission of the NRC itself.”
Congressional reaction: Democrats
On the other side of the aisle. appraisals were more favorable. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.): “For his efforts to hold the nuclear industry accountable, Chairman Jaczko was subjected to repeated personal attacks made by some of his colleagues and pro-industry advocates in Congress. I am extremely disappointed he is leaving the Commission.”
Rep. Edward Markey (D., Mass.): “Greg has led a Sisyphean fight against some of the nuclear industry’s most entrenched opponents of strong, lasting safety regulations.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee: “I thank Chairman Jaczko for always fighting for the health and safety of the American people. I look forward to the President’s nomination of a successor that will carry the same level of concern…”
The Nuclear Energy Institute
Marvin Fertel, president and chief executive officer of The Nuclear Energy Institute, was balanced in his appraisal: “In the seven years that Chairman Jaczko has served as a member of the commission we recognized his commitment to set the highest standards for the safe operation of the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants and transparency throughout the nuclear regulatory framework. We have had differences with the chairman on how best to achieve our mutually shared safety goals. But to his credit we’ve always had open lines of communications and a willingness to respectfully discuss the issues.”
Reading the tea leaves
Speculation and conjecture concerning Jaczko’s eventual successor immediately began swirling around the internet. The Energy Collective quotes nuclear industry analyst Dan Yurman: “If the White House is smart, they’ll nominate [current Commissioner] Bill Magwood as a successor, in order to minimize political fallout” while also noting that Magwood is controversial and unpopular among environmental groups.
Others who may be considered, according to buzz in the nuclear industry, include Bill Borchardt, executive director for Operations at the NRC, who has been with the NRC since 1983 and enjoys a very favorable reputation as an exceptional federal regulator; and Allison MacFarlane, who has served on National Academy of Sciences panels on nuclear energy and nuclear weapons issues and was a member of the White House’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Are these dark horse candidates? Who else will be in the running?
Inside the Beltway, only the tea leaves can portend.
Addendum Friday, May 25: Tea leaves no longer necessary. “President Obama names Allison Macfarlane as NRC Commissioner to replace Jaczko.”
Paul Bowersox serves on the staff of the Outreach Department at the American Nuclear Society.