It is a four against one war. On one side is the Chairman, a man armed with essentially no experience or professional training associated with the effective use of the gift of nuclear energy. On the other side are four experienced and well-educated nuclear energy professionals who among them can count close to 100 years of working with nuclear reactors, nuclear safety analysis, nuclear propulsion plants, advanced nuclear energy research and development, and nuclear project management.
The Chairman happens to have two political patrons – Senator Harry Reid and Congressman Ed Markey. Those men are not just his political supporters; they were his first and only bosses during a post graduation career that included just 6 years inside the Washington DC beltway before being appointed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under a strong-arm deal that included holds on dozens of federal judgeships. The obvious goal of the deal was to ensure that Senator Reid had his man in place in time to derail the Yucca Mountain project after his state had milked every possible dollar from the ratepayer-provided Nuclear Waste Fund without actually allowing any used nuclear material to be safely stored.
The detail that many people have forgotten is that Jaczko is not just a Harry Reid protege, he is an Ed Markey protege. Reid’s plan to stymie the rest of the nation with regard to Yucca Mountain was obvious, but what is far more important to me is the strategy that Jaczko’s first boss had in mind. Markey has been fighting nuclear energy development for the better part of four decades; placing a carefully trained antinuclear activist right inside the technology’s official gatekeeper was quite a coup.
On the surface, Markey would appear to be just one of 435 congressmen who happens to be from a small state in New England, but I believe that he is an important part of a loose alliance of human beings for whom cheap, abundant, reliable energy is a frightful prospect that needs to be resisted. It seems almost counterintuitive for a New England congressman to be in favor of an expensive, unreliable, and constrained energy supply, but Markey’s district happens to include the oldest Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) reception terminal in the United States.
That multibillion dollar facility and its supporting infrastructure would be suddenly worthless if there was somehow a magical development of safe, low-cost, emission free, reliable, flexible energy. Who would go to the trouble to drill, extract, liquify, ship, gasify, and transport a dangerous, explosive, flammable gas from Trinidad all the way to homes in New England if there was a cheaper, cleaner and safer alternative? I hope you can imagine how many rich and powerful friends might share the same concern over allowing a fearsome competitor that can check virtually all of the desirable boxes for a power source to be introduced into the lucrative US energy market.
According to an article published on the Huffington Post titled Gregory Jaczko, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chief, Damages Agency, Panel Says the other four members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – the ones with the knowledge and experience to understand their important task of enabling the use of nuclear energy to support the common welfare and defense of the United States – have signed a letter addressed to the Chief of Staff of the President of the United States detailing their frustration with the leadership style and decision making processes used by the 41-year-old, politically-appointed Chairman.
Four Nuclear Regulatory commissioners from both parties say they have “grave concerns” about the panel’s chairman, charging that the actions of Gregory Jaczko are “causing serious damage” to the commission and creating a “chilled work environment at the NRC.”
In a letter to the White House, the commissioners say Jaczko’s bullying style could adversely affect the agency’s mission to protect health and safety at the nation’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors.
The article also describes Chairman Jaczko’s official response to that letter, which illustrates why I have occasionally told people that it is often an unfair competitive advantage to be prematurely bald or grey – especially in a political environment where credentials are ignored over surface characteristics or “pull”. Grey hair or a bald head gives often juvenile people a disguise that allows them to slither into positions of authority over others with far more experience and knowledge.
Jaczko, in a detailed response also sent to the White House, said problems at the agency were not his fault but instead stem from “lack of understanding” on the part of the other four commissioners.
However, the real response to the four commissioner letter can be found on the web site of Congressman Ed Markey Dec. 9, 2011: New Report Details Conspiracy to Delay, Weaken US Nuclear Safety in Wake of Fukushima: “Regulatory Meltdown” Reveals Efforts to Improve Nuclear Safety Undermined by Four NRC Commissioners. That press release is also dated December 9, 2011 and indicates that there is a sustained effort underway that is designed to undermine the credibility of the four experienced commissioners. Failing that, I am pretty sure that Markey would be satisfied if his efforts simply tied up the commission and prevented them from taking effective action on important tasks – like approving the design certification rule for the AP1000. Here is a sample quote from the press release:
The actions of these four Commissioners since the Fukushima nuclear disaster has caused a regulatory meltdown that has left America’s nuclear fleet and the general public at risk,” said Rep. Markey. “Instead of doing what they have been sworn to do, these four Commissioners have attempted a coup on the Chairman and have abdicated their responsibility to the American public to assure the safety of America’s nuclear industry. I call on these four Commissioners to stop the obstruction, do their jobs and quickly move to fully implement the lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster.
Remember – the Fukushima disaster was initiated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a 45 foot high tsunami and it affected four nuclear plants built with the knowledge, understanding and technology of the 1970s. Even under those unrepeatable circumstances, it was a pretty good demonstration of the safety of nuclear energy. Despite all of the recent highly publicized releases and leaks (measured in tiny units that are incomprehensible to most observers) the most exposed person in the general public received a dose that is less than the legally permitted annual dose for workers in one of the safest industries in the world as measured by its 55-year, well-documented history.
The controversy at the NRC could result in a lot of churn and delay if it is allowed to continue. That situation helps Markey’s fossil fuel friends by adding certain costs and uncertain delays in the two surviving nuclear plant construction projects. It hurts the residents of the states of Georgia and South Carolina whose elected leaders have made a conscious, long term decision to invest in being the leaders in building a new generation of safe, emission free, reliable nuclear power plants. It also hurts everyone – including me – who is employed in the effort to build a new generation of safe, clean, reliable, emission free, affordable nuclear power plants in the United States.
It is not an easy or cheap task to be the early adopters of a new generation of a technology that America invented, developed, shared with the world and then essentially abandoned. There are 1300 workers at the Vogtle site right now who are anxiously awaiting the NRC’s permission to keep working. They have completed all of the construction steps that they are allowed to complete under the Limited Work Authorization (LWA) that they were issued to allow site preparation and now need the AP1000 design certification and the Vogtle construction and operating license to be issued so they can continue working.
There are approximately 1300 more workers who have not yet been hired who will staff the rest of the construction team that will be carefully erecting the new technology and documenting each step of the numerous processes involved so that they can be repeated more efficiently by similarly sized construction crews on the second unit and on the units that are planned to be built at VC Summer, at Turkey Point, and at the Levy County greenfield site in northwest Florida. There is no telling how many new nuclear power plants are riding on the early successes of the initial units.
I’m calling on my President (yes, I voted for President Obama and probably will do so again) to recognize that the best course of action for the nation and for his political future is to tell Chairman Jaczko to resign and to take his antinuclear activism with him. Failure to take that action promptly would demonstrate a significant lack of understanding and judgement that would encourage me to support someone else.
New York Times – Matt Walt published a story titled Internal Dissension Unsettles the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Idaho Samizdat – Dan Yurman offers a different take on the situation Bad blood boils over at the NRC. Dan thinks the Chairman is in a stronger postion than I do. He believes that the President cares more about the anti-Yucca Mountain votes in Nevada than the “jobs, jobs, jobs” related votes in Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. I think he forgets how close Reid came to being defeated by a clown candidate.