NRC’s Jaczko leads an agency in flux

At 4:40 a.m. on March 11, staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission got word that a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake had hit Japan.

As it became clear that the resulting tsunami had blacked out power at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, staff poured into the emergency operations center on the fourth floor of the NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md.

By late afternoon, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko was in the operations center tracking what quickly became one of the biggest nuclear disasters in decades.

Around 9 p.m., when it was evident that there was no immediate threat to U.S. reactors, Jaczko called for volunteers. 

“Who has a passport and can get to Dulles [airport]?” he asked.

One employee raised his hand and was on a plane to Japan within two hours. Dozens of NRC staffers would follow in the weeks ahead.

Four months after Japan’s earthquake, everything has changed at the NRC.

Many of the goals Jaczko outlined in 2009 after becoming chairman have been put on the back burner. The NRC staff has shifted gears and is working to restore confidence in the country’s 104 nuclear reactors following the nightmarish images that filled the airwaves during the Japan crisis.

“We were doing a good job and then Fukushima happened, and it probably has thrown everything into uncertainty,” Jaczko said.

In an exclusive interview with The Hill this week, Jaczko talked at length about the U.S. response to the Fukushima disaster, as well as a number of broad issues facing the commission.

“If there’s a problem with a nuclear power plant or any facility in this country, in the end, the responsibility falls to me,” Jaczko said. “I rely on a tremendous number of dedicated and talented people in this agency to help me. But at the end of the day, the buck stops with me.”

The interview came the same week that NRC staffers released a much-anticipated 90-day review of U.S. reactors that called for sweeping new rules to ensure that power plants can respond to major emergencies and prevent catastrophe in the event that a reactor loses power for a long period of time.

President Obama ordered the review in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, and the commission agreed to form a task force at the end of March.

The task force said the NRC should develop a “logical, systematic and coherent regulatory framework” to supplement the “existing patchwork of regulatory requirements and other safety initiatives.”

It’s a tall order for a federal agency that is not known for taking swift action. But Jaczko called on his fellow commissioners to respond to the task force report “with a sense of urgency.”

The commission should make decisions on all of the recommendations in the report within the next three months, Jaczko said.

“I think the standard should be that, in less than 90 days — the time the task force was asked to do the report — the commission has weighed in on all of the recommendations one way or another,” he said.

That might require a shift in the way the commission has traditionally operated.

“It’s going to take the commission doing things in a way that it hasn’t done them before,” Jaczko said. “But that’s what Japan is all about. It told us that the status quo maybe isn’t totally OK. We need to do things differently. And part of that means that the commission may need to dedicate its time and focus to looking at this report and getting a result.”

The task force’s report already is facing pushback from industry. The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade group, on Wednesday faulted the report for neglecting to cite data and information from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster to support its recommendations.

The NRC said Jaczko is looking at ways to get stakeholder input on the report.

More broadly, the NRC chairman said it is essential that the commission be willing to update and rework its safety standards.

“There’s always going to be new information, things that we learn,” Jaczko said. “So we’ll always have to go back and re-evaluate all of these things. Fundamentally, these are difficult decisions. That’s why we have a commission — to work through those and to bring diverse perspectives and diverse views to that process.”

Jaczko has become a fixture on Capitol Hill in recent months, not just because of the Fukushima disaster, but also for his decision to close out the NRC’s Yucca Mountain program.

A June NRC inspector general report said Jaczko withheld key information from his fellow regulators in his push to shut down the commission’s review of the long-delayed Nevada nuclear waste repository. The Obama administration slashed funding for the project last year.

Jaczko “strategically” disseminated partial information to the other commissioners about his intention to abandon the ongoing evaluation of Yucca Mountain, the report stated, while stressing that Jaczko did not break any laws.

The GOP has pounced on the report, bashing Jaczko for his decision to close down the Yucca program. One House Republican even called on Jaczko to step down. Jaczko said he has no intention of resigning.

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who are conducting an investigation into the administration’s decision to abandon Yucca Mountain, have held two hearings on the report. The hearings have offered the lawmakers an opportunity to publicly lambaste the NRC chairman.

In his interview with The Hill this week, Jaczko defended his actions.

“This was a decision which was in my authority to make,” he said.

Jaczko declined to answer further questions related to Yucca Mountain and the IG report, instead pointing The Hill to his previous statements.

“Since I’ve become chairman, I’ve worked very hard to ensure that we have an open debate on the commission,” Jaczko said last month at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

He dismissed criticism of his leadership style by anonymous current and former NRC employees in the report. Staffers called him “unprofessional and manipulative.” A former NRC chairman described Jaczko as “ruling by intimidation.”

“All of those statements that you read were not findings of the IG, which means that they were statements that some people made that they couldn’t corroborate or they couldn’t substantiate to the point that they became an official finding,” he said at the hearing.

But, in the end, Jaczko said he and his fellow commissioners must make difficult decisions about the kind of important nuclear policy issues they’ll face as part of the review of U.S. plants, even if those decisions are unpopular.

“All of those decisions, those ultimate, safety-policy decisions that Congress entrusted us to make are going to be difficult, thorny decisions,” he said. “And that’s why they created the commission. Because they knew that.”