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Shake-up at U.S. NRC: Jackzo resigning, anti-Yucca geologist nominated as replacement

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Michael Mariotte

For many months, four of the five NRC Commissioners, backed loudly by Congressional Republicans, have been waging an unprecedented and nasty campaign to remove NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko from his post. Their public complaints have focused on management style, accusations of bullying of NRC staff, and an unwillingness to keep the four informed on some key issues.

The real issue for waging a campaign to remove NRC Chairman Jaczko from his post has been policy. Jaczko was appointed Chair by President Obama in 2009 at the urging of his former employer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in part because Jaczko was a longtime and effective opponent of the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste dump. Obama had agreed to end the Yucca Mt. project and Jaczko was expected to—and did—end NRC review of the Department of Energy’s license application for the project. After all, with DOE no longer pursuing the project nor willing to spend money to defend its application or participate in the process, there wasn’t much left to review. But some of the Commissioners felt differently.

That alone wouldn’t have been enough, however, to foment this kind of revolt. The last straw for the Commission majority was Fukushima. First, Jaczko kept them out of the NRC’s emergency operations center during the height of the crisis. He didn’t want critical NRC staffers having to disrupt their 24-hour/day work to answer Commissioner questions. Then Jaczko stood with President Obama and urged Americans within 50 miles of Fukushima to evacuate—even though NRC policy only contemplates evacuations out to 10 miles.

And when an NRC staff task force was set up to examine lessons learned from Fukushima and recommend regulatory changes, Jaczko ran interference for them and kept the other Commissioners from disrupting their process. He then took those recommendations and pressed hard for their speedy implementation against the opposition of the other Commissioners. Finally, Jaczko voted against both new reactor licenses granted by the NRC in 2012 (and voted against relicensing of the Fukushima-clone Pilgrim reactor in Massachusetts end of May).

None of this was welcomed by the nuclear power industry, nor their allies on the Commission and on Capitol Hill. So despite the fact that the NRC ranked in annual surveys as the best place to work in the entire federal government throughout Jaczko’s term, Jaczko’s management abilities were suddenly brought into question and the bullying (and worse) charges levied against him. Bitter Congressional hearings were held.

Jaczcko has his powerful Congressional supporters of course, like Sen. Reid, along with Senate Environment Committee chair Barbara Boxer and Rep. Ed Markey, usually the most outspoken nuclear critic in Congress. But it was becoming obvious that he would be unlikely to be confirmed for another term as Chair when his appointment runs out in June 2013. And, really, who in his right mind would want to subject themselves to five more years of the kind of abuse heaped on him?

So in May, Jaczko announced he would resign, but that his resignation would only become effective upon confirmation of a new chair. Given the slow pace of action and deep polarization in Congress, that might keep him in the job for months and perhaps fully through his term.

But the nuclear industry and Congressional Republicans really want a new term for Commissioner Kristine Svinicki—by voting record the most pro-industry Commissioner of them all. Her term ends next month. Sens. Reid and Boxer had already stated their opposition to that renomination (which Obama unfortunately did make), and it appeared unlikely she would be confirmed.

But with Jaczko’s announcement, Reid—who is dedicated to permanently defeating Yucca Mountain--seized on the opportunity, and apparently convinced President Obama to nominate Allison Macfarlane as the new NRC chair.

Macfarlane is a geologist and a longtime opponent of Yucca Mountain, on strictly scientific grounds. She simply doesn’t believe it is a suitable site for radioactive waste and has said so clearly. She also opposes reprocessing of radioactive waste, and believes waste in fuel pools should be moved to dry casks. Most recently she was a member of the Department of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which adopted some of her positions.

Macfarlane is not anti-nuclear power, however, and it is somewhat unclear how far her expertise extends on nuclear reactor safety issues.

Macfarlane would never be confirmed by the Senate in normal times. Except there is that Svinicki nomination, which was headed for a no vote. So, the Nuclear Energy Institute quickly fell into line and endorsed Macfarlane as a package deal with Svinicki. So did Senator Reid. While some extreme right-wing commentators and industry people have since weighed in urging the Senate to reject Macfarlane, at this point it looks like the deal will hold. One thing is certain at this point: either the NRC will get both of them, or neither of them. Hearings are expected on both nominations early in June, and possibly a Senate floor vote shortly thereafter.

Source and contact: Michael Mariotte, NIRS Washington
Email: nirsnet[at]