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The Plot to Oust America’s Nuclear Watchdog


In what may well be a temporary aberration, the Obama Administration appears to be sticking by Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko, even though the nuclear industry most definitely wants him out.  The current assault on Jaczko has come in the form of a “confidential” letter from Jaczko’s four fellow commissioners sent in October  to White House Chief of Staff William Daley complaining that the NRC Chairman pays scant attention to their views and generally runs the Commission as a one man show.  Should the attack succeed, the new Chairman will most likely be William Magwood, long a tireless promoter of nuclear power as Director of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy where he promoted the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, a program to restart reprocessing of nuclear waste.

Obama himself has had a long and unpleasing record of engagement with the nuclear industry, notably the Exelon Corporation, which has been making generous provision to Obama’s campaign chest ever since his days in the Illinois Senate, where he performed various useful services on the corporation’s behalf.  It should therefore have come as no surprise that when a vacancy arose on the NRC board early in his administration, Obama nominated Magwood.

The nomination was opposed by over a hundred organizations which vainly cited Magwood’s shameful record as a tout for the industry he was now supposed to regulate.  Once installed early in 2010, he showed every sign of a zealous commitment to advancing the priorities of the nuclear power industry.

Back in those happy pre-Fukushima days, the future appeared bright for nuclear power . The public obloquy that followed Three Mile Island, condemning the industry to years of stagnation, was at last dissipating, thanks to artful invocation of the specter of global warming and concurrent recasting of nuclear power as a “clean” energy source and toast of the environmental movement.

One problem remained: longterm disposal of high level nuclear waste.  In 1987 it had seemed that this particular issue had been settled with the passage in Congress of the “Screw Nevada” bill nominating Yucca Mountain, 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the sole suitable site that could be considered for the permanent interment of 72,000 tons of lethal waste currently stored at reactors around the country.  The selection had little scientific validity, given that the site marks the juncture of two seismic fault lines and in any case is volcanically active and composed of porous rock, through which flows drinking water for one of Nevada’s most important farming areas, as well as an Indian reservation.  The mountain is also sacred to the Western Shoshone people.

Opposing the infamous bill was freshman Senator Harry Reid.  Outraged and humiliated by the way that legislators from Washington state and Texas, the two other nominees for a waste site, had effectively consigned Nevada to be the radioactive trash dump, Reid, a former amateur boxer, remarked that “sometimes you have to go round the back of the bar” to finish a fight.

In ensuing years, as the construction crews tunneled away into the depths of the mountain, Reid took several initiatives to ensure that Yucca Mountain never opened for business.  First, he advanced through the Democratic leadership to become Majority Leader in 2006.  Second, he maneuvered successfully to move Nevada’s Democratic caucuses to January, thus rendering them potentially crucial in the nomination race.  This had the natural consequence of generating fervent pledges from Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in 2008 that, so long as there was breath in their bodies, Yucca Mountain would never hold nuclear waste.  Thirdly, Reid recruited as his appropriations director and science policy adviser Gregory Jaczko, a former aide to  veteran anti-nuke congressman Ed Markey.  Fourth, he induced George W. Bush in 2005, to nominate Jaczko as a Commissioner to the NRC in exchange for dropping Democratic opposition to a number of federal judgeships.  Following Obama’s presidential victory, Reid demanded and secured Jaczko’s appointment as Chairman of the NRC.

Once at the helm, Jaczko moved with commendable dispatch to shut down Yucca Mountain once and for all even while fellow commissioners  echoed the nuclear industry in pushing for a mere suspension of the project.  Then came the Fukushima disaster. As the reactor buildings  exploded and US military radiation monitors in Japan ticked remorselessly upwards, the US government began to panic.  “I’ve lived through many crises in the decades I’ve been in government,” one national security official intimately involved in the Fukushima response told me, “but this was the most frightening week of my professional life, by far.  We thought we were going to lose half of Japan.”

While the Japanese government reacted to the catastrophe with criminal quiescence – enjoining evacuation merely from an area within 12 miles of the plant – Jaczko took more decisive action, telling Americans within 50 miles to move out. This was anathema to the industry, a sentiment emphatically  mirrored in the four commissioners’ letter of complaint to the White House.  Further initiatives irksome to Magwood and the others included a push to enjoin additional safety measures on US reactor operators in light of Fukushima.

“He’s not ‘our guy’ by any means, he has voted to re-license plants that should probably be shut down” says Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear.  “But he does care about safety, in ways that the others do not.”

So far at least, the White House, conscious no doubt of Nevada’s electoral votes, is backing Jaczko.  But, even while Jaczko confronts his assailants, a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future has been chewing on the problem of what to do with the radioactive waste filling up pools at reactors around the U.S..  Headed by that perennial placeman, former congressman Lee Hamilton, the commissioners include Obama’s old pal, Exelon CEO John Rowe, who, as Beyond Nuclear’s Kamps points out, “has created more nuclear waste than anyone else in America.”

Senator Reid’s work may not yet be done.

ANDREW COCKBURN is the co-producer of the feature documentary on the financial catastrophe American CasinoHe is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. 
He can be reached at



Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino.  His latest book is Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt).

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