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Nuclear crises renew regulator's relevance

NRC chief Gregory Jaczko keeps the focus on safety amid political charges around Yucca Mountain plans and industry influence.

At a dinner in Washington celebrating his mother's birthday on March 26, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko received an urgent phone call: The nuclear crisis besetting Japan required him to be at Dulles International Airport in two hours to fly across the Pacific Ocean.

Jaczko proceeded to work for more than 24 hours on little sleep with NRC teams helping stabilize the post-tsunami nuclear emergency at the Fukushima plant. Then he flew 14 hours back to Washington in time for a March 30 congressional hearing.

"It's been a challenging year, for sure, and we've had a lot of issues," he says. "But I'm tremendously proud and impressed with the way the agency has responded. You always have plans for work over the next year, but what happened in Japan caused us to reevaluate and reorganize and retrench, so some things we wanted to do won't get done. The most important thing is that our safety focus on our existing plants, our materials licensees and our field cycle facilities continues at a tremendously high level."

Despite Jaczko's priority of keeping NRC "a strong, credible regulator on nuclear safety," 2011 has been a year of scathing criticism. Some Republicans in Congress -- and even some NRC officials -- questioned his objectivity in implementing the Obama administration's 2009 decision to cancel long-in-the-works plans to store nuclear waste inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Media investigations and a Brookings Institution study charged that NRC is in "regulatory capture," a situation in which a regulatory agency becomes dominated by the industry it is charged with overseeing, and weak on enforcement. And NRC's inspector general in June reported that some managers are offended by Jaczko's temper outbursts.

"I'm a very passionate person, and I believe strongly in what I do," Jaczko says. "Everyone has their own style and personality, but anyone who knows will say I care deeply about what I do."

The issues around Yucca Mountain "have been challenging and contentious for the country for a long time," he says. "What I continue to be proud of is having an agency where people with strong views can go to Congress and express those views. It's a hallmark of our agency. Those are the people I want at this agency. That's how we do the right thing." Passions can be equally strong among employees performing reviews of applications for nuclear licenses. "Nuclear safety is not an easy issue, and regulation requires that kind of open exchange of ideas," he says.

Some see political bias in NRC's decision to end its evaluation of future prospects for the canceled Yucca project because the site is in the home state of Jaczko's former boss, Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid. Jaczko counters that the agency's focus is safety, not politics. He says NRC doesn't make the decision to build (or not build) a facility.

"The Energy De­part­ment no longer has a budget or program for Yucca Mountain so I don't think it would be a prudent use of taxpayer dollars for us to be working on a technical review for an application for a program that doesn't exist," he says.

Recent reports of low morale at NRC -- which has three times been named the best agency to work for by the Partnership for Public Service -- don't faze Jaczko. "As I walk through the halls and talk to people, most tell me they love working here," he says. "Those with issues tell me about them so we can make it an even better place. The NRC continues to perform at an incredibly high level, and that's a function of the fact that they come to work knowing the mission."

And the charge that America's chief nuclear regulator is in the pocket of the energy industry? "I come to work every day with 4,000 people dedicated to public health and safety," Jaczko says. "There will always be some people who think we do too much and others who think we do not do enough. It's the nature of being a regulator."