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Gregory Jaczko’s Exit Poses Problems for White House

Replacing NRC Chief Could Prove Challenging

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo

The decision by the controversial head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and ally of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to quit Monday doesn’t necessarily end the headaches over nuclear power for the Obama administration.

Gregory Jaczko, a former Reid aide and opponent of using the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, announced Monday morning that he would resign, capping months of infighting at the agency in charge of safeguarding nuclear power plants. The other four members of the commission accused him last year of abusive behavior, while Jaczko’s allies retorted that he was being unfairly singled out because of his aggressive regulation of the industry.

But Jaczko won’t be leaving immediately. He made his resignation effective once the Senate confirms a successor, complicating efforts by the nuclear industry and Republicans to replace him with someone friendlier to the industry.

“My responsibility and commitment to safety will continue to be my paramount priority after I leave the Commission and until my successor is confirmed,” Jaczko wrote, adding, “This is the right time to pass along the public safety torch to a new chairman.”

In finding a successor, the White House will have to balance competing interests. Reid is expecting another chairman in Jaczko’s mold, even as the White House has touted its support for nuclear power as part of its “all of the above” energy strategy. Most Democratic leaders, including President Barack Obama, are at least nominally pro-nuclear, and the administration has boasted that new nuclear power plants are moving forward for the first time in decades — even though Jaczko voted against approving some plants over safety concerns. Plus, the administration has sent mixed signals to the industry by zeroing out funding for completion of the Yucca Mountain repository in its previous budgets.

As with the Keystone XL oil pipeline, elements of the party’s base remain fiercely opposed to nuclear power, but the White House has attempted to find a middle ground where the president can be pro-energy and pro-environment at the
same time.

Still, a senior Senate Democratic aide predicted that Jaczko’s resignation would ultimately strengthen the anti-Yucca Mountain forces aligned with Reid. And Reid is sure to have a big influence on Obama’s pick.

“It will take away one of the Republicans’ biggest talking points. ... I think they’ll end up with a chairman who is stronger on the safety side, strong on Yucca and harder to attack,” the aide said. “At the end of the day, there’s not going to be a radical alteration in the balance of power, or really much of a change at all.”

Indeed, the controversy embroiling Jaczko at the NRC arguably weakened his influence, whereas a new chairman would likely be free of such baggage.

Reid issued a statement thanking Jaczko and laid down a marker for his criteria in a new chairman.

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