The former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reveals how the nuclear energy industry endangers lives, how the NRC has been overpowered by the industry it was meant to regulate, and why Congress does nothing to change the status quo.
Mushroom clouds are not the only danger from nuclear fission. Physicist Jaczko, formerly the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, writes that another accident on par with the Fukushima tragedy grows more likely with time due to nuclear-industry resistance to safety regulations, which corporations fear will reduce profits. His time as chairman was spent helping defeat the Yucca Mountain project to store nuclear waste-"No other industry is able to complain so loudly that someone else has failed to take care of its waste"-as well as advocating for stronger safety measures for nuclear power and voting against new licenses for building new reactors. Despite his chairmanship, Jaczko argues persuasively that he was fighting a losing battle with industry lobbyists, pro-nuclear congressional members, and even his commission colleagues. This is a well-written memoir from an insider with a powerful message: nuclear power can never be made completely safe, and defining safety is as political as it is scientific. Jaczko's forthright "confessions" will help raise awareness on this crucial issue. For more nuclear revelations, see Daniel Ellsberg's The Doomsday Machine? (2017). Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
The political education of a scientist-turned-nuclear energy regulator.As chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Barack Obama, Jaczko was not a political insider; nor was he beholden to the industry that had invested and reaped billions of dollars from the proliferation of nuclear energy. He maintains that he was "a nuclear power moderate" when appointed to the commission, though one who "had become skeptical of the ability of the nuclear power industry to properly balance its fiscal responsibility to shareholders with the demands of public safety." As with many regulatory agencies, nuclear power regulation seems to suffer from a fox-guarding-the-henhouse mentality. The financial stakes are huge, not only for the industry, but for those who benefit from the jobs the industry creates and the taxes it pays, which often support the communities where the reactors are located. Accidents are rare, but when they occur, as the lingering memory of Three Mil e Island reminds us, the results can be devastating. Better safe than sorry, but how safe is safe? "What constitutes ‘safety' is often determined by political, not just scientific, judgments," writes the author, who experienced political resistance funded by anti-regulation lobbying throughout his tenure. "I was hardly anyone's first choice for the job," he admits, as even the Obama administration that appointed him expressed skepticism over his lack of administrative experience and the staffers he would oversee weren't accustomed to working with someone so young (early 40s). Jaczko found himself consistently at odds not only with the industry he was charged with regulating and with their congressional supporters, but with the rest of his commission. The more he pushed for safeguards following the Japanese Fukushima accident in 2011, the stronger such resistance became, and he admits that "sometimes I behaved in a way that could be described as hotheaded." Since resign i ng in 2012, he now advocates from the outside and maintains that "nuclear power is a failed technology." A cautionary tale with a matter-of-fact tone. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator
I never planned to be in a position to tell this story. A trained physicist, a Birkenstock-wearing PhD still amazed that a few simple equations could explain something as extraordinary as the northern lights, I never intended to become a nuclear regulator.
Before I came to Washington, I had never heard of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. There are no television shows or movies with dashing federal agents rushing into a nuclear power plant with blue blazers flashing NRC logos. But because of a powerful politician and a right-place-at-the-right-time kind of timing, I became not only a nuclear regulator but the head of the agency.
This is how my first conversation with Harry Reid, the second most powerful Democrat in the Senate, who eventually got me on the commission, went back in 2001 when I was interviewing for a job in his office.
As we sat down in his office, he said, in a soft, raspy voice, “I would like you to come work for me.”
“Great,” I replied.
“You are a physicist, right?”
“Tell me the name of your PhD dissertation.”
“?‘An Effective Theory of Baryons and Mesons.’?”
He stood up abruptly and asked, pointing at the window, “What do you think of my view?”
And so I started down the path that would eventually get me the job of commissioner, landing me inside the secret corridors of the agency charged with regulating the nuclear industry. I felt like Dorothy invited behind the curtain at Oz. Then, in another unlikely development for a guy with untested political skills and his basic idealism still intact, I became the agency’s chairman.
The problem was that I wasn’t the kind of leader the NRC was used to: I had no ties to the industry, no broad connections across Washington, and no political motivation other than to respect the power of nuclear technology while also being sure it is deployed safely. I knew my scientific brain could stay on top of the facts. I knew to do my homework and to work hard. But I could also be aggressive when pursuing the facts, sometimes pressing a point without being sensitive to the pride of those around me. This may have had something to do with why I eventually got run out of town. But I also think that happened because I saw things up close that I was not meant to see: an agency overwhelmed by the industry it is supposed to regulate and a political system determined to keep it that way. I saw how powerful these forces were under the generally progressive policies of the Obama administration. These concerns are even more pressing under the Trump administration, in which companies have even more power. I was willing to describe this out loud and to do something about it. And I was especially determined to speak up after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan, which happened while I was chairman of the NRC. This cataclysm was the culmination of a series of events that changed my view about nuclear power. When I started at the NRC, I gave no thought to the question of whether nuclear power could be contained. By the end, I no longer had that luxury. I know nuclear power is a failed technology. This is the story of how I came to this belief.