Ex-regulatory official says nuclear power industry ‘warps’ views about safety of technology

A former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says that the nuclear power industry has “warped” the ways in which we think about the safety of the technology.

Gregory Jaczko, who is currently on tour promoting his new book, told Hill.TV that he saw first-hand the ways in which money and political influence often take precedence over nuclear safety in the U.S.

“As I saw how the industry is regulated — and I saw that from the inside — I began to realize that there’s a lot of money, there’s a lot of influence of the industry that warps how we think about the safety of this technology,” Jaczko told Hill.TV’s Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti on “Rising.”

Jaczko said this realization really hit home during the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. 

Over 100,000 people were forced to flee after a tsunami hit a power plant in Ōkuma, Fukushima Prefectur. Jaczko noted that the plant was operating with technology that's very similar to the kind that's employed in U.S. nuclear plants. 

Even though proponents argue that nuclear energy is the safest way to make electricity, the former regulator warned that due to the way nuclear plants operate, they always have the potential to fall into a “catastrophic scenario,” and release harmful radiation into the environment.

“We have a lot of nuclear power plants in this country and they do have the potential for catastrophic accidents,” he said.

To make matters worse, Jaczko said the NRC has failed to implement new policies to help update or improve technology.

“When I was chairman, we initiated a program to improve then safety of nuclear power plants, it’s one of the things I’m disappointed about is that many of those recommendations have not been implemented,” he told Hill.TV.

Jaczko said many of the necessarily upgrades take time, and even if nuclear plants did make the necessary updates, he said many would have to shut down before they're completed due to the cost burden.

Nuclear plants are already "losing" in the energy markets, which he said has lead industry leaders to turn to state and federal government for support. 

There are currently 60 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 98 nuclear reactors in 30 states across the country, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That's down slightly from 104 operating commercial nuclear reactors in 2011.  

—Tess Bonn