Time to end nuclear politics

Earlier this month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the authority responsible for overseeing the nuclear power industry in the U.S., approved the construction of the first new nuclear power plant in the country since 1979, according to Julie Johnsson and Brian Wingfield of Bloomberg News. The commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of granting the license for the plant. The lone dissenter was the NRC’s chairman: Gregory Jaczko. This vote is merely the latest in a string of events which show Jaczko to be a political pawn rather than an independent regulator of the nuclear industry. Writing for National Review, nuclear engineer Robert Zubrin explains that Jaczko was appointed to the NRC in 2005 by President Bush, under intense pressure from Jaczko’s boss at the time, Sen. Harry Reid from Nevada. While the other candidate “presented credentials including three patents, 160 technical publications, and three decades of experience working at Los Alamos National Lab,” Jaczko “had no patents, no publications, and no technical work experience whatsoever,” according to Zubrin. His lack of qualifications, coupled with his close ties to Sen. Reid, should have been the first warning signs.

After Obama took office in 2009, he made Jaczko head of the NRC with the goal of shutting down the controversial nuclear waste storage facility being developed at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Both Obama and Sen. Reid were fierce opponents of the site. Prior being appointed to the NRC, Jazcko worked for Sen. Reid. Sure enough, after spending $10 billion developing the facility, “Jaczko summarily shut the Yucca Mountain site [in early 2011] without even consulting his fellow commissioners,” writes Ken Timmerman of Newsmax.

Zubrin explains how Jaczko manipulated the process to shut down the facility: “In 2010 [Jaczko] issued a directive stopping an NRC staff evaluation of the project, precisely because the study would have shown that the project was sound. He then used the resulting lack of safety data as an excuse to order work on the Yucca Mountain project to be stopped altogether.”

As a result, Zubrin explains that nuclear waste must be stored at reactor sites themselves which tend to be close to urban areas. “Clearly,” writes Zubrin, “it is strongly in the interest of public safety that these materials be moved from their current suburban locations to a remote desert facility, such as Yucca Mountain.”

Even the NRC’s own inspector general, Hubert Bell, cried foul. After the Yucca debacle, Bell issued a report which found that “Jaczko used his powers as chairman to carry out the president’s wishes while running roughshod over his fellow commissioners,” write John Broder and Matthew Wald of the New York Times. Bell also asserted that “Jaczko created a hostile workplace atmosphere with frequent outbursts of temper, favoritism in travel assignments and selective release of information to the other members of the commission.”

But it gets even better. After shutting down Yucca Mountain, the administration began looking for alternatives. News was leaked last summer that the U.S. had entered into secret negotiations with Mongolia to allow the U.S. to export our nuclear waste to that impoverished country. According to Timmerman, “given the extreme poverty of Mongolia, the Obama administration may believe its efforts to build an international spent fuel dump in Mongolia will encounter fewer objections and little oversight, in stark contrast to the longstanding U.S. government plans to bury spent fuel deep beneath Yucca Mountain.”

Although the deal never went through, the fact that it was even contemplated reflects rather poorly on an administration supposedly devoted to treating other nations fairly.

All of this puts the vote on the new reactor in a different light. While Jaczko cited safety concerns in light of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima as his reasons for opposing new reactors, he has not provided many reasons to take him seriously. The NRC is currently reviewing nuclear safety standards in light of the problems with Japan’s reactors after the tsunami. In the meantime, new reactors, including the ones just approved in Georgia, incorporate cutting-edge safety features designed to minimize human error.

Aside from political and ideological opposition to nuclear power, there appears to be little reason for Jaczko to oppose the new reactors. Indeed, his vote confirms the conclusion that he is merely operating in a political manner in what is supposed to be a science-based, independent regulatory agency. If the administration is committed to pursuing sound energy solutions, then it’s time for Jaczko to look for alternate employment.

Story by Maxford Nelsen Columnist 

Nelsen is a senior majoring in political science. Comments can be sent to mnelsen13@my.whitworth.edu.