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.
“I am confident whomever replaces Chairman Jaczko will share his commitment to protecting the safety of the American people over the interests of a single industry,” Reid said. Unlike many other NRC commissioners, Jaczko has never been an industry insider, instead developing his expertise as a scientist and as a nuclear policy adviser to Democratic lawmakers.
But a senior Republican aide said Jaczko’s decision to stick around means the White House will have to keep defending him and noted that an inspector general report is due in the next month. That report is expected to scrutinize Jaczko’s decision to invoke emergency powers after last year’s nuclear plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan, among other issues.
“We’re going to see more fallout,” the GOP aide predicted. “How much do you want this to continue to be front and center with the press?”
The aide noted that Obama has already pushed back against Reid by renominating Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, even though Reid and Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) have accused her of misleading Congress in testimony five years ago about Yucca Mountain.
“Whichever way you go, it’s a big headache for Obama,” the aide said.
Jaczko’s supporters, however, were disappointed. Public Citizen called Jaczko’s departure “a terrifying example of industries trying to wreak havoc on those who regulate them — and winning.”
Reid pulled out all the stops to get Jaczko appointed to the NRC during the Bush administration, applying blanket holds to the administration’s nominees until it agreed to appoint him.
Jaczko ignored the attacks from his commission colleagues about his behavior in his statement.
“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was one of the best places to work in the federal government throughout my tenure,” he said in his statement.
The White House praised Jaczko and said the president would quickly nominate a successor.
“A strong and effective NRC is crucial to protecting public health and safety, promoting defense and security and protecting the environment, and we intend to nominate a new chairman soon,” White House spokesman Clark Stevens said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sharply criticized the administration for standing by Jaczko to this point.
“Dr. Jaczko’s troubling behavior as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had clearly resulted in a hostile work environment for women that ran counter to acceptable norms of workplace equality and that threatened to undermine the mission of the NRC itself,” McConnell said in a statement. “The only thing surprising about his resignation is the fact that the Obama administration has remained silent for more than a year after allegations of Jaczko’s offensive behavior surfaced. Even Democrat commissioners said that Jaczko bullied employees and intimidated female workers as chairman of the commission.”
Several House Republicans repeated calls for Jaczko to resign immediately so another commissioner can take over. And McConnell reiterated his call for the Senate to reconfirm Svinicki for another term before her post expires June 30.
Reid has opposed Svinicki as too close to the industry, but Republicans have accused him of holding up her nomination because she and the other commissioners called out Jaczko last year.
That has aides in both camps speculating about a possible trade of Svinicki for a new chairman who conforms to Reid’s criteria.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.