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Nuclear power, politics, and the odyssey of former US NRC chair Gregory Jaczko

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
John H. Perkins, PhD

Gregory Jaczko is probably not a familiar name to anyone except those deeply steeped in the convoluted and contentious politics of nuclear power in the United States. These politics began at the end of World War II, shortly after the newly discovered processes of nuclear fission powered the nuclear bombs exploded over Japan in 1945. From 1946 to 1975, the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) governed and promoted both weapons and the emerging technology of nuclear power amidst constant debates about both. Controversy over safety forced the dissolution of the AEC, and its regulatory functions were picked up by the newly formed US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 1975. The theory behind NRC was that it would be divorced from the task of promoting nuclear power and serve strictly to regulate it. Nevertheless, the political squabbles over regulations moved directly from AEC to NRC and have endured to the present day.1

For some, Jaczko's involvement with the NRC may seem like ancient history. His appointment as a Commissioner on the NRC began in 2005, and President Obama elevated him to chairman of NRC in 2009. During Jaczko's tenure, many controversies over safety continued, exacerbated by the immense financial investments in the technology. In addition, Jaczko's personality and leadership style aggravated disagreements between him and the other four commissioners and between Jaczko and industrial and political forces committed to preserving and expanding nuclear power. He led NRC for three years before resigning under pressure in 2012.2

Now Dr. Jaczko has written a memoir telling his side of the story, Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator (2019),3 and the book provides one perspective about the future of energy and the global efforts to mitigate climate warming. These issues provide insights important for the strategic campaigns of anti-nuclear activists.

Jaczko's book can best be understood as two learning episodes. First, he had a tutorial under fire about the heated politics of nuclear power in Washington. Second, his conclusions about the safety of nuclear power (better put, the lack of safety) evolved during his service on the NRC.

Jaczko's political education in Washington

Jaczko realized as a graduate student in physics (University of Wisconsin, Madison) that he wanted to pursue a career different from an academic or research career in physics. He won a Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, sponsored by the American Institute of Physics and administered through the American Association for the Advancement of Science.4 These prestigious fellowships open the door for newly minted scientists to learn how to apply their academic expertise to real life political challenges by working for Members of Congress, and they often lead recipients to interesting careers in the policy and political worlds of Washington.

Jaczko arrived in Washington in August, 1999, but he did not arrive with anti-nuclear sentiments. He had never heard of the NRC,5 and his attitude towards nuclear power was one of marvel at the technological achievement of nuclear power but tempered by awareness of its safety issues.6

Jaczko first served on the staff of Representative Edward Markey (D, MA). Markey was a strong proponent of controlling nuclear arms and ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants.7 In March, 2001, he joined the staff of Senator Harry Reid (D, NV). Reid, the Democratic whip, later to become Senate Majority Leader, was focused on thwarting the 2002 law designating Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the repository for nuclear wastes.8 This law had ended a prolonged stalemate about exactly where the US would dispose of high level nuclear wastes and spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants, and it passed despite strong, formal opposition by the Governor of Nevada.

In 2003, Reid asked Jaczko to help find possible nominees for vacancies on the NRC, but then asked Jaczko if he, Jaczko, wanted to be a Commissioner. Confirmation of Jaczko's nomination took two years, and in 2005 he took his seat as one of the Democratic members of the NRC. His service on the staffs of Representative Markey and Senator Reid had marked him, in the eyes of the nuclear industry, as a potential problem, so he began his duties already known as potentially a different kind of Commissioner.9

Jaczko says very little about his service as a Commissioner from 2005 to 2009. Nevertheless, he describes this time as one of learning the supreme importance and power of the electric utility industry and other owners of nuclear power plants.10 Literally billions of dollars were invested in these machines, and their economic viability was at risk from regulatory changes issued by the NRC. Understandably, therefore, the nuclear industry wanted commissioners who believed in the industry and wanted nuclear power to be a commercial success.

The many companies comprising the industry had formed the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in 1994 by consolidating older organizations dating to 1953. NEI currently has hundreds of members and is the trade association lobbying for the nuclear industry, including owners and operators of nuclear reactors plus firms designing, building, and providing fuel. In addition, NEI members also include supporting institutions such as universities, government research laboratories, consulting firms, nuclear medical producers, law firms, and others.11 As of 2019, a 55-member Board of Directors, representing the broad membership, governs NEI.12

From Jaczko's point of view:13

". . . NEI members have a history of acting as one. This solidarity gives them tremendous influence with Congress. NEI also has a huge impact on the decisions of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. . . Killing regulations, or even modifying them slightly, can produce savings of millions of dollars per year in operating costs, equipment purchases, and technical analysis. . .NEI shapes every NRC regulation, guidance, and policy. . . In any given month, I could be visited by as many representatives of the industry as I would be by public interest groups across my entire seven and a half years on the commission."

Jaczko knew that the NEI did not want him as chairman of NRC, but his truly formative lesson on Washington politics came when he went to the White House for a final interview before his elevation to be chair of the NRC. His interview with President Obama's chief of staff showed just how contentious his appointment was, and he left the interview with firm understanding: nobody wanted him to be chair except Reid, and in blunt, colorful language Jaczko learned that he was not to make any problems for the President!

Obama's motives were multiple. He had come into office with two major goals, health care and climate change, and he saw nuclear power as an aid to his larger goal of reducing CO2 emissions.14 Moreover, Obama had been a Senator from Illinois, a state deriving about 61 percent of its electricity from nuclear power (May, 2019).15 Thus as a Senator, he was anything but anti-nuclear, and he had probably come to know the lobbyists from NEI.

For his part, Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader from 2007 to 2015, wanted Jaczko to be chair, probably based on Reid's perception that Jaczko would help oppose construction of the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Reid had also maneuvered Obama into opposing the construction of the site, despite Obama's acceptance of nuclear power.16

Thus, from the very beginning of his tenure as chair, Jaczko was caught in a three-way pincer: NEI opposed him, Obama wanted nuclear electrical generation to continue, ignoring for the moment the dangerous spent fuel rods piling up at nuclear power plants. Reid, Jaczko's patron, did not want the waste repository in Nevada, period, so block construction at Yucca Mountain. How to deal with climate change and the debris from existing nuclear power plants were separate problems. Welcome to the competing interests and long knives of Washington, Dr. Jaczko, and good luck.

Jaczko's absorption of the political lessons of Washington were clear at the outset of his tenure as chairman of NRC, and Yucca Mountain quickly reinforced his understanding of exactly how treacherous nuclear politics could be. The US Department of Energy (DOE) owned the site, and during the George W. Bush administration had initiated the request for a license from NRC to dispose of spent fuel at Yucca Mountain. President Obama, however, honored his campaign promise and gave the orders to shut down construction, over the objections of his own DOE.

Legal issues at NRC tangled the request to withdraw the license request, and Jaczko emerged with scars based on his support for stopping NRC consideration of the project.17 Ultimately, the choice of continuing with the project was the responsibility of the Obama administration, but nevertheless Jaczko had engaged in the first of several battles and begun to acquire enemies who wished him out of his job. But even more ferocious battles were yet to come.

Jaczko's evolving views on safety and nuclear power

The second factor shaping of Jaczko's judgements about nuclear power began with the accident at a Japanese nuclear power plant, Fukushima Dai-ichi, on 11 March 2011. On that fateful day, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck just off the east coast of Japan, west of Fukushima Prefecture and northeast of Tokyo. The four reactors operating at Dai-ichi automatically shut down, and electric power from the grid to the plant was also lost. Thus, the electric power that normally provides needed cooling water to the reactors was lost.

Emergency diesel engines automatically switched on to provide power to continue cooling the reactors and storage areas for spent fuel rods. About 40 minutes later, a 14-meter (45-feet) high tidal wave swept ashore, destroying towns, killing many, and disabling the emergency generators for units 1, 2, 3, and 4 at Dai-ichi. Secondary emergency generation kick in, but after about a day they were exhausted. Hydrogen built up inside units 1, 2, and 4, and they exploded a few days later.18 The accident was classified as a category 7 event, the most serious because it meant a major release of radioactive debris.19 The situations at Fukushima (2011) and Chernobyl (1986) are the only two accidents to date so categorized.

An ordinary commissioner on the NRC would have no special duties to deal with an accident in a foreign country, but the chair, as head of the agency and spokesperson for it, was immediately in the spotlight as an authoritative voice about the dangers to US citizens in Japan and in the United States. He was also responsible for assisting the Japanese as requested. Furthermore, the plants in Japan had been designed in the US and were very similar to many operating US reactors. After 2011, Jaczko spent a substantial amount of his time dealing with the aftermath of the events at Fukushima Dai-ichi,20 and his subsequent troubles stemmed from the ways his mind-set had been changed by events in Japan.

I'll return to the ways in which Fukushima led to Jaczko's departure from NRC in a moment, but it's important to realize that the fact of other accidents and near accidents also shaped his changing attitudes toward safety and nuclear power. In the book, he summarizes events at Browns Ferry (Tennessee, 1975), Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania, 1979), Chernobyl (USSR, now Ukraine, 1986), and Davis-Besse (Ohio, 2002).21

Jaczko also devotes an entire chapter to the serious threats from natural disasters that threatened US nuclear plants but did not result in radiation releases. In Spring, 2011, floods on the Missouri River threatened Fort Calhoun (near Omaha, Nebraska), and in August of that year, an earthquake rocked North Anna (in Virginia, near Washington, DC). Fortunately, neither the earthquake nor the floods resulted in an accident, but Jaczko's discussion of them shows how he clearly believed "no accident" was more a sign of luck than intrinsic safety of the machines or the skill of operators in making their machines as safe as possible.22

Jaczko's discussion of safety planning at these two plants provided him the opportunity to explore the intricacies of two different engineering approaches that shaped the construction and operation of nuclear plants.23 Both Fort Calhoun (construction began 1966) and North Anna (construction began 1971) had been designed and built with engineering of safety based on deterministic methods. Under this concept, engineers predicted the hazards under both normal operations and under the most severe natural phenomena that could be imagined. They then designed the plant to more than withstand those threats. Deterministic methods could not provide a complete safety model of a plant, but they guided engineers to specific threats and remedies, and they were easier to explain to the public.

A method of safety analysis developed after these two plants were constructed, probabilistic risk assessment (PRA), started with a series of postulated events in the plant and then calculated the probability of the failure of safety equipment to control the event. One view of PRA was that it failed its primary purpose, which was to make a convincing, argument to the public that nuclear power was more than safe enough, even though PRA was an advance in understanding reactors and what could go wrong.24 Another view was that PRA was a technical success in opening new ways of managing nuclear reactors.25

Whatever the motivations for inventing PRA, the method entered NRC's regulatory schemes in 2004.26 PRA-based regulations could be more flexible than deterministic methods, but they also invited industry resistance to plant modifications. Managers could invoke cost-benefit considerations and ask why they had to make expensive changes based on accidents with extremely low calculated probabilities of occurrence.27 In addition, probabilistic methods were more difficult to explain to the public and were controversial among scientists and engineers.28

Jaczko, Fukushima, and his departure from NRC

Events at Fukushima shaped the remainder of Jaczko's contentious tenure as NRC chair. First, he appointed a task force to quickly outline the lessons that Fukushima should impart to the NRC and other national nuclear regulators. This group began work in March, 2011, and completed their assignment in July. Their conclusions focused on general improvements in NRC regulatory policy and some changes specifically aimed at the boiling water reactors operating in the United States that resembled those that exploded at Fukushima.29

Reverberations of the task force's report began almost immediately, but the effects were powerfully shaped by the history of nuclear power dating to 1954. In that year, the US Congress had opened development of nuclear power to private industry, which over the next two decades launched efforts by many private firms to build and operate nuclear power plants. The federal government would regulate safety, primarily through issuances of, first, a construction permit, and, second, after construction was complete, an operating license.30 The basic thought behind Congress' actions were to bring in the supposed efficiency and innovation that private industry had exhibited elsewhere.

For various reasons, however, private industry turned out to be, at best, of mixed competence in nuclear power. Plant construction time-schedules and costs proved difficult to control, and by 1978, the nuclear industry stopped asking for new construction permits.31 The anticipated launching of a nuclear-powered USA32 ground to a halt, and no further new applications for licenses to construct and operate came for three decades.

In 1992, the Congress began a series of reforms aimed at restarting the nuclear industry, and they changed the licensing from a two-step to a one-step process. The applicant could apply for a combined construction and operating license for a reactor of approved design. If building was to the approved specifications, the company could begin operating it without a second application.33

Unfortunately for those advocating more nuclear power, combined construction-operating licenses alone did not sway industry decision-making. It turned out that the real block to building new reactors was financing, not just the licensing procedures. In 2005, Congress approved several programs to help companies financially, the most important of which were Federal loan guarantees. Banks would loan to nuclear companies if the bank was guaranteed not to lose money. (In addition, some States allowed charging ratepayers for Construction While In Progress (CWIP), an alternative way of obtaining financing for building new reactors.34)

The Southern Company was the first applicant to receive a loan guarantee, of $8.3 billion, in 2010 from the Obama administration. The Company was ready to apply for its combined license in 2011, and, just a few weeks after Fukushima, Jaczko proposed to the other commissioners that NRC delay the licensing procedures. This resulted in a "no," so the Southern application went to a required public hearing in the Fall of 2011.35

It was here that Jaczko's growing concerns about safety met in a head-on collision with the power of immense amounts of money and thousands of construction jobs at stake. As he phrased the title of Chapter 9, it was an "Express Lane: The Nuclear Industry Licensing Juggernaut." Jaczko tried various ways to put the Southern Company on notice for safety improvements, but his efforts could not win the support of the other commissioners or the NRC staff. Ultimately, he voted no on issuing the license, but no other commissioners joined him.36

The aftermath of his failed attempt to slow down the first licensing procedures in over three decades launched Jaczko into a downward spiral, which ended in Harry Reid telling him that he would resign in May, 2012.37 Jaczko's described his "mistake" in the following way:

"There are significant safety enhancements that have already been recommended as a result of learning the lessons from Fukushima, and there's still more work ahead of us. Knowing this, I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened. But without this license condition, in my view, that is what we are doing."38

Jaczko, indeed, had been a different kind of commissioner and especially a different kind of chair of the NRC. He is probably the only person to have occupied those positions who developed a full-blown skepticism about the wisdom and necessity for continuing to encourage expansion of the industry, even though he acknowledged that existing nuclear plants in the US would continue operation for many years. Nevertheless, he believed that renewable energy especially offered many opportunities for safer and cheaper generation of electricity.39

Lessons from the Jaczko experience for anti-nuclear activists

I draw three lessons from Jaczko's memoirs. First, it is unrealistic to see the NRC as the engine that will close the nuclear industry in the United States. People with the expert knowledge to serve as commissioners will almost certainly come from training programs and experiences leading them to favor the technology. Jaczko was the exception proving the rule. Activist organizations can sue the NRC if they think it has violated one of its own rules, but that's about the extent of usefulness of direct interaction with the NRC itself. Instead, focus on persuading a majority in Congress that nuclear power's susceptibility to low-probability-but-high-consequence accidents makes it unsuitable as an energy source.

Second, nuclear power's weakest feature is its expense. The huge up-front capital expenditures needed to build a new plant, plus its long history of not building them on schedule, led to skepticism of the industry by financial institutions. Activists can work on Congress not to guarantee loans to the industry or insure lenders against delays in construction. Activists can also work with federal and state regulators of electricity markets not to allow higher rates for nuclear electricity or for rates funding Construction While in Progress. Starved of financing and subsidies, nuclear power will eventually disappear.

Finally, the plea that nuclear power is a good solution for climate change is refuted by calculating the costs and lengths of time nuclear plants need for construction, combined with the number of plants needed to make a dent in CO2 emissions. Point also to the opportunity costs of nuclear power: what could similar amounts of capital do to fully build out an energy economy based on renewable energy used efficiently? Renewable energy is not without its own challenges, but those pale in comparison with the intrinsic financial and safety weaknesses of nuclear power.40

John Perkins' latest book, Changing Energy: The Transition to a Sustainable Future, was published by the University of California Press in 2017. He's currently writing a new book on the prospects for a timely and complete transition to energy economies without fossil fuels and uranium (nuclear power). He has previously worked at the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Miami University (Ohio) and The Evergreen State College (Washington State). Perkins has published over 50 articles, book chapters, and reports on topics of energy, environment, and agriculture. He has an AB (Amherst College) and PhD (Harvard University) in biology.


1. J. Samuel Walker and Thomas R. Wellock, A Short History of Nuclear Regulation, 1946 – 2009 (Washington: United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NUREG/BR-0175, Rev. 2, October 2010), 1 – 49.

2. John M. Broder and Matthew L. Wald, Chairman of N.R.C. to Resign Under Fire, New York Times, May 21, 2012, found at, 24 August 2019.

3. Gregory B. Jaczko, Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019), 196 pp.

4. Meghan Anzelc, Gregory Jaczko, Ph.D. Physics, Commissioner, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (APS Physics, Forum on Graduate Student Affairs), found at, 19 August 2019.

5. Jaczko, Confessions, p. vii.

6. Jaczko, Confessions, p. 7.

7. Jaczko, Confessions, p. 4.

8. US Congress, "H.J.Res. 87 — 107th Congress: Yucca Mountain Development resolution." 2002, found at, August 20, 2019.

9. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 3 – 9.

10. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 10 – 13.

11. Nuclear Energy Institute, About NEI,, 21 August 2019

12. Nuclear Energy Institute, NEI Board of Directors and Executive Committee,, 21 August 2019.

13. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 12 – 13.

14. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 14 – 17.

15. Energy Information Administration, Illinois net electricity generation by source, May. 2019,, 21 August 2019. Percent calculated by author.

16. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 57 – 58.

17. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 67 – 68.

18. USNRC, Backgrounder on NRC response to lessons learned from Fukushima, September 17, 2018, found at, 21 August 2019.

19. International Atomic Energy Agency, International nuclear and radiological event scale (INES), found at, 21 August 2019.

20. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 70 – 95.

21. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 23 – 40.

22. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 104 – 115.

23. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 45 – 48.

24. John H. Perkins, Development of risk assessment for nuclear power, Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 4 (2014): 273 – 287.

25. Thomas R. Wellock, A figure of merit: quantifying the probability of a nuclear reactor accident, Technology and Culture 58 (July 2017): 678 – 721.

26. Jaczko, Confessions, p. 48.

27. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 126 – 127.

28. Perkins, Development of risk assessment.

29. Charles Miller, Amy Cubbage, Daniel Dorman, Jack Grobe, Gary Holahan, and Nathan Sanfilippo, Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century (Washington: U.S.NRC, 2011), 83 pp.

30. Kathleen M. Saul and John H. Perkins, Nuclear power: is it worth the risks? In Green Energy Economies: The Search for Clean and Renewable Energy, ed. John Byrne and Young-Doo Wang (Transaction Publications, 2014): 276 – 295.

31. Irvin C. Bupp and Jean-Claude Darian, The Failed Promise of Nuclear Power: How the Nuclear Dream Dissolved (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 241 pp.

32. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Civilian Nuclear Power: A Report to the President 1962 (Washington: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1962), 67 pp.

33. Saul and Perkins, Nuclear power.

34. Saul and Perkins, Nuclear power.

35. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 135 – 138.

36. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 132 – 143.

37. Jaczko, Confessions, p. 160.

38. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 157 – 158.

39. Jaczko, Confessions, pp. 161 – 168.

40. John H. Perkins, Changing Energy: The Transition to a Sustainable Future (Oakland: University of California, Press, 2017), 232 – 237.

Aging nuclear plants, cost-cutting, and reduced safety oversight

Dr Edwin Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, writes in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

"After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) set up a task force to assess whether there were deficiencies in its oversight of nuclear reactor safety. The task force came back with twelve major areas for improvement. Its top recommendation: The agency needed to strengthen its fundamental regulatory framework to reduce the risk that a Fukushima-scale accident could happen in the US. But after dragging their feet for years, the NRC commissioners finally rejected the proposal in March 2016, with then-Commissioner William Ostendorff concluding that "the current regulatory approach has served the Commission and the public well."

"Yet only a few years later, the NRC has reversed course. The agency now says it urgently needs to transform its regulatory framework, its culture and its infrastructure ‒ but in ways that would weaken, rather than strengthen, safety and security oversight. A key aspect of that transformation is an overhaul (or what the NRC euphemistically calls an "enhancement") of the Reactor Oversight Process, the NRC's highly complex system for determining how it inspects nuclear power reactors, measures performance, assesses the significance of inspection findings, and responds to violations. Overall, these changes ‒ many of which are being pushed by the nuclear industry ‒ could make it harder for the NRC to uncover problems and mandate timely fixes before they jeopardize public health and safety. ...

'At this time, the four sitting commissioners (there is one vacancy) have not all voted on the proposed reactor oversight changes, but the outcome isn't in much doubt. The Republican majority, under the direction of Chairman Kristine Svinicki, has already weakened the NRC's regulatory authority in other areas. For example, in a 3-2 vote in January 2019, the majority gutted the staff's proposed final rule for protection against Fukushima-scale natural disasters by eliminating the requirement that reactors be able to withstand current flooding and seismic hazards."

The full article is online:

Edwin Lyman, 29 Aug 2019, 'Aging nuclear plants, industry cost-cutting, and reduced safety oversight: a dangerous mix',