No apologies from outgoing Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman

Though his leadership style wasn’t always well received and might have been his undoing, outgoing Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko made no apologies Thursday at a media roundtable for the results it produced.

Jaczko, whose term is slated to end in June 2013, said Thursday at a Platts Energy Podium event in Washington, D.C., that he had planned to step down sometime before then anyway. An inspector general report that portrayed him as abusive to staff members and often at odds with the NRC’s four other commissioners likely helped to expedite that timetable.

When asked whether he would have changed his relationships with his colleagues, Jaczko replied matter-of-factly that “yeah, I would make them better.”

“I’ve never been the shy person. I’ve said on multiple occasions that I’m very passionate about what I do. ... I don’t regret pushing for the issues that I’ve pushed for, and I believe in the end the commission made better decisions because of the leadership that I demonstrated during Fukushima, in the aftermath and the changes that we were looking to make.”

Jaczko announced in May that he would resign his post, but would remain at its helm until his successor is put into place. The Senate last week confirmed George Mason University professor Allison Macfarlane to succeed Jaczko, clearing the way for him to leave.

The departing chairman candidly discussed on Thursday several topics regarding his tenure at the NRC and the future of that organization during the hour-long session.

Nuclear safety tinged most of his concerns, especially as the NRC attempts to implement lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi tragedy last March in Japan. Jaczko noted that many of those changes “were not always popular.”

Power plant operators need to focus more on prevention rather than mitigation, Jaczko said, and more technical questions must be asked in the design process, stronger cyber defenses must be developed and security culture must evolve for that to happen.

Shifting to an emphasis on risk assessment will put the NRC in a better position to address safety issues, Jaczko said. That progress is still an area of concern — a long-term plan from the commission will help to identify skill gaps, he said, adding that risk assessment is “clearly” an area that must improve.

“We’ve done all the easy things, which is we’ve identified the issues,” the outgoing chairman said. “Now we have to actually go about addressing them. And I think that’s going to be hard. It’s going to take sustained focus and commitment. So I hope that the commission will continue to keep the pressure on.”

If decision makers evaluate safety and design upgrades based on cost-benefit analyses, Jaczko warned, they will be less inclined to open their checkbooks. Although events like those at Fukushima are unlikely, they carry high consequences — but too often an emphasis on the bottom line can discourage investments that would prevent those catastrophic events, he said.

“I don’t see this being a significant or a prohibitive cost to operation,” Jaczko said. “Sometimes I think we need to err on the side of looking at the consequences.”

The NRC significantly reformed its safety posture during Jaczko’s tenure, he said. Changes to reactor design regulations that started as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are continuing to be strengthened, and the fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi event will add another layer to those precautions, he said.

The commission also is moving forward with a plan on fire protection and will consolidate more of its staff in centralized locations to improve planning and communication, Jaczko said.

One issue that will outlast Jaczko’s legacy is the Yucca Mountain nuclear disposal site. He said the NRC has “wrapped up our work on Yucca Mountain,” but lawmakers have fought Jaczko and the NRC on that position.

The commission does not have “nearly enough money” to conduct “any meaningful proceeding” at the nuclear waste storage site, Jaczko said. Lawmakers from both parties have charged that the NRC chairman and the commission have exercised too much power to unilaterally shut down Yucca Mountain, adding that move would violate U.S. law.

The NRC contends it lacked the proper funding to continue its Yucca Mountain operations. House lawmakers responded last month by passing an Energy and Water appropriations bill amendment to give it an additional $10 million.

The U.S. District Court of Appeals decision last month to throw out the NRC’s waste confidence standard might also affect the commission’s licensing and renewal process, though not significantly, Jaczko said. Right now, it appears some renewals for storing spent fuel might face delays while skirting any facility operations changes, he said.

That court decision essentially rejected the more than three-decade logic that the NRC could oversee spent fuel storage, commenting that the NRC “has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository.” It calls upon the NRC to determine the environmental and economic costs of not finding a repository for that spent fuel before licensing and re-licensing reactors.

“How I read the court is that we need to go back and re-analyze the ... environmental impact statement and redo that process,” Jaczko said. “We know how to do that. We were in fact already on the way to do that for a much longer timeframe, we look to the next update of the waste confidence rule.”

— This story was updated at 2:14 p.m.