By Andrew Restuccia and Ben Geman - 05/21/12 04:35 PM EDT
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko announced his resignation on Monday after three tumultuous years as head of the agency.
Jaczko oversaw the approval of the first new nuclear power reactors in decades but faced intense criticism over his management style.
The White House said President Obama plans to nominate a new chairman soon, and that Jaczko plans to continue leading the agency until his successor is named.
The resignation sets up what could be a tough election-year fight over the next NRC chief at a time when the agency’s politics have been in the limelight.
The four other NRC commissioners, two Democrats and two Republicans, wrote a letter to the White House last year alleging that Jaczko was causing “serious damage” to the agency that could harm the body’s ability to protect health and safety.
The letter was released publicly shortly after an NRC inspector general report exposed major tensions within the agency. The report quoted anonymous NRC staffers who alleged that Jaczko created a tense atmosphere at the agency and, in some instances, berated employees.
The NRC’s inspector general is set to soon release a second report examining the allegations against Jaczko. A spokesman for the NRC said the chairman’s resignation had nothing to do with the pending report.
Jaczko has been a divisive figure in Washington. Democrats have praised his tenure, casting him as a strong proponent of nuclear safety who refuses to bend to the will of industry. Republicans, furious over the administration’s decision to abandon the long-delayed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository, have pounced on criticism of Jaczko’s leadership.
Earlier this year, the NRC green-lighted the construction and operation of the first new U.S. nuclear reactors in decades, a major victory for the nuclear power industry, which has struggled to secure regulatory approvals since the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster.
But Jaczko, breaking with the NRC’s other commissioners, opposed the license approvals, arguing that the plant operators should commit to implementing the regulatory reforms imposed in the aftermath of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
Jaczko helmed the agency in the months after the March 2011 disaster, an event that caused U.S. regulators to rethink existing safety regulations. The chairman outlined an aggressive five-year timeline for implementing a slew of new nuclear safety regulations recommended by a federal task force formed by Obama.
Jaczko’s resignation comes amid a partisan battle over the re-nomination of Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, a Republican, to a second term at the agency. Obama officially re-nominated Svinicki earlier this month.
While Republicans strongly support the nomination, Democrats, including Reid and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), have criticized Svinicki.
Jaczko and Svinicki have clashed publicly in recent years. She joined her colleagues in raising concerns about Jaczko’s management style to the White House, and initially voiced skepticism about Jaczko’s timeline for implementing new post-Fukushima safety rules.
Svinicki has also alleged that Jaczko berated female employees at the agency, claims that were initially revealed in last year’s inspector general report.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Jaczko of creating a “hostile work environment for women” at the NRC in a statement Monday, and urged the Senate to quickly reconfirm Svinicki as a commissioner.
Jaczko has stood behind his record at the commission and strongly denied allegations that he targeted women at the agency.
“After an incredibly productive three years as chairman, I have decided this is the appropriate time to continue my efforts to ensure public safety in a different forum,” Jaczko said in a statement Monday. “This is the right time to pass along the public-safety torch to a new chairman who will keep a strong focus on carrying out the vital mission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”
The White House praised Jaczko’s “service and efforts to further the mission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — to license and regulate the nation’s use of nuclear materials.”
“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,” White House spokesman Clark Stevens said in a statement.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a critic of Jaczko, cheered his decision to step aside.
“With his resignation today, the NRC can focus on its mission of safety without the distractions of Jaczko's inappropriate behavior,” said Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
But Reid praised the work of the outgoing NRC chief.
“He dedicated his tenure to improving the safety of nuclear energy, and his leadership during the Fukushima nuclear crisis protected millions of Americans. His work toward a safe and effective nuclear energy policy has left Nevada and the nation more secure,” he said in a statement.
This story was first posted at 10:40 a.m. and has been updated.