“Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator”
By Gregory B. Jaczko
Simon and Schuster, $26.00
Reviewed by Tom Henry
First, let’s get out what might be one of the most important things you need to know about this highly intriguing, intellectually stimulating and political powder keg of a book: The man can write.
No, former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko isn’t going to give John Grisham a run for his money.
But when I think back on the 26 years I’ve covered the NRC and what this book could have been, I’m glad for what it’s not. Pore over some NRC documents sometime. They’re not the easiest thing to read, as if the science of nuclear power is that easy for non-engineers to digest in the first place.
But Jaczko does a decent job about deciphering the scientific gobbledygook and distilling it into a readable form for the layman. He even ends the book with a thoughtful appendix that describes, step-by-step, how a nuclear plant works.
Jaczko, a self-described Birkenstock-wearing physicist, said he came to Washington with almost the naïveté and idealism of the Jefferson Smith character that actor Jimmy Stewart portrayed in the 1939 Frank Capra film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
He went to work for one of the nation’s most powerful senators at the time, U.S Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who helped get Jaczko appointed as an NRC commissioner in 2005. Through another series of unlikely circumstances, Jaczko was made NRC chairman by former President Barack Obama in 2009.
Jaczko came to the NRC impressed by nuclear power, but not the cheerleader the industry is used to having on the commission’s governing board. He held the regulatory commission’s top job until 2012, when Jaczko said he was forced out of Washington for being too outspoken.
He became a highly controversial figure on Capitol Hill because, as he says, he went rogue — coming in a little skeptical of nuclear power’s safety claims but leaving far more highly critical of them than he expected.
Jaczko went against the grain of Washington elites, refusing to pander to the industry or soft-pedal concerns he had about long-standing issues, such as the risk of fires in nuclear power plants. He was seen as an activist’s dream because of his candor and his unwillingness to fall in line with what the industry wanted.
Has industry learned lessons of Fukushima?
Jaczko’s epiphany didn’t begin with the Fukushima Daiichi multi-reactor meltdown in Japan on March 11, 2011. But that cataclysmic event clearly amplified it.
The Fukushima Daiichi meltdown was a defining, coming-of-age moment for him personally, and he wishes it would have been more of one for the nuclear industry.
But, according to Jaczko — despite all of the post-Fukushima talk about enhanced safety — the lessons of Fukushima have not sunk in deeply enough with the nuclear industry.
Upon seeing the wreckage during his first visit to the Fukushima Daiichi complex, he said he became convinced that no amount of bravery or engineering would have been able to stop the natural forces bearing down on the reactors from the infamous earthquake-tsunami that triggered the accident.
“If any resolve to make serious reforms at American plants had been strong before this visit, it was reinforced by the wreckage I saw everywhere I looked,” Jaczko writes. “The plant had been no match for the design flaws, poor location, and natural hazards that had converged to create lasting devastation for the people nearby and the environment. The promise of perfect nuclear safety was a mirage.”
Early in the book, Jaczko gave a good synopsis of events such as the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania and other mishaps, including a brief overview of the near-disaster at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in northwest Ohio in 2002.
'I now believe nuclear power
is more hazardous than it is worth.'
— Gregory B. Jaczko,
former U.S. NRC chairman
The latter was of special interest to me, because Davis-Besse is 30 miles east of Toledo and part of my newspaper’s circulation area, so I wrote about it extensively. Jaczko gives it the seriousness it deserves.
Although I’m sure Jaczko is no darling of nuclear industry public relations departments, he is extremely honest in explaining grave concerns he has about nuclear safety. The industry itself is a classic study in risk assessment: How much risk in anything is reasonable?
Jaczko knows the confluence of nuclear engineering science and how it intersects with politics on Capitol Hill. He knows the political system as well as the mechanics of how electricity is produced.
Though his critics will question his conclusions and accuse him of embellishment, Jaczko offers a unique perspective and writes with authority.
He also doesn’t mince words.
“In hindsight, the Fukushima incident revealed what has long been the sad truth about nuclear safety: the nuclear power industry has developed too much control over the NRC and Congress,” Jaczko, who is now an adjunct professor at Princeton and Georgetown universities, writes.
“In the aftermath of the accident, I found myself moving away from my role as a scientist impressed by nuclear power to a fierce nuclear safety advocate. I now believe nuclear power is more hazardous than it is worth,” he adds. “Because the industry relies too much on controlling its own regulation, the continued use of nuclear power will lead to catastrophe in this country or somewhere else in the world. That is a truth we all must confront.”
Tom Henry, The (Toledo) Blade’s environmental-energy writer, is SEJournal’s BookShelf editor. He also is a former SEJ board member and has judged several of the group’s annual contests, serving as chairman of its Rachel Carson Environment Book Award committee multiple times.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 7. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.