It was no surprise to those who follow the ups and downs of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to learn of Chairman Gregory Jaczko’s resignation announcement last month.
To replace Jaczko, President Barack Obama has named Allison Macfarlane, a geologist at George Mason University and an expert in nuclear waste disposal. Macfarlane is the first geologist to be appointed to lead the agency – an interesting choice as the NRC reassesses the earthquake safety of all plants in the central and eastern United States after last year’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan. Macfarlane is expected to be confirmed by the Senate later this year.
2011 was a tough year for the NRC. The ongoing story of the Fukushima disaster brought intense media attention to the regulation and safety of the United States’ own nuclear reactors. Story after story raised the question of whether a similar catastrophe could happen here.
At the same time, the agency’s five commissioners were involved in a lengthy and contentious effort to approve the first new nuclear reactors to be constructed in the U.S. in more than 30 years.
But the criticism Jaczko faced took an unusually personal turn. In a series of Congressional hearings, colleagues complained that Jaczko kept them in the dark about important decisions, bullied NRC staff and created an environment that was detrimental to the agency’s work.
Jaczko’s supporters, such as U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., claimed he was being criticized for trying to bring reform to an agency that many viewed as too cozy with the nuclear industry and too slow to enact the lessons learned from Fukushima.
The Center for Investigative Reporting spoke with Jaczko last winter for “Danger Zone,” a documentary exploring gaps in the NRC’s oversight of aging nuclear power plants, as many reactors continue to operate past their originally anticipated 40-year lifespan. In our interview, Jaczko readily admitted that the agency often moved more slowly than he would like.