Gregory Jaczko's decision yesterday to step down as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may have handed Republicans a temporary win, but his departure isn't immediate and may do little to ease simmering tensions on Capitol Hill over the fate of the Yucca Mountain waste dump in Nevada.
The chairman's carefully worded exit plan is conditioned on the confirmation of his successor -- a tough order to fill in such a divisive political climate in a presidential election year.
The White House promised yesterday that a replacement would emerge "soon," and one well-placed Republican staffer said the administration and Senate leaders have already discussed the name of one potential successor (Greenwire, May 21).
House Republicans who have long called for Jaczko's ouster and the continued review of the Yucca Mountain waste dump are anxious for him to leave the five-member commission as quickly as possible. Republican leaders on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee said as long as Jaczko remains in office, problems associated with his stormy tenure will last "indefinitely" and called for a new chairman to take his place immediately.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said during an interview yesterday that Jaczko "shouldn't drag it out" and that "once you resign, you should probably leave."
A new nominee would need to be vetted and confirmed, but the White House wouldn't need Senate approval if a sitting commissioner was appointed chairman.
Even so, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Jaczko's former boss, would not easily swallow the nomination of one of the current Democratic NRC commissioners -- William Magwood and George Apostolakis -- to replace Jaczko. Both accused Jaczko of bullying staff and withholding information in a letter to the White House last year.
The Senate will first need to find someone to fill the remainder of the chairman's current term before finding a nominee for the full five-year stint. Jaczko has served on the commission since 2005 and been its chairman since 2009.
The White House and Senate leadership could move the candidate in step with the renomination of Republican NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, whose term expires next month. But Republicans have warned that a successful confirmation depends on the candidate.
"Republicans aren't necessarily going to fall in line and approve or support any potential candidate," said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "They're going to have to decide on the candidate's nomination on their own. Without knowing a name, it's hard to speculate if it's someone that can get approved by the Senate or not."
Questions are still swirling around Jaczko's announcement yesterday, but the 41-year-old chairman said during an interview that he did not feel he was pushed out by accusations from his colleagues or Republicans. Instead, Jaczko said it was "exclusively my decision," and because he did not plan to seek another term, he wanted to give the administration enough time to find his replacement.
"That could take a short amount of time, it could take a long amount of time, but I just wanted maximum opportunity to get a good candidate," Jaczko said. "So I thought it was just appropriate for me to make my intentions clear."
Some knowledgeable observers speculated yesterday that Jaczko was targeted by Republicans and industry heavyweights for opposing the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump and trying to reform the country's nuclear safety regime.
Jim Manley, formerly Reid's top spokesman, said the nuclear industry long ago vowed to oust Jaczko. The chairman's departure does not reflect a loss of Reid's support, Manley added.
"They still are a very powerful force in this town, the nuclear industry has had its ups and downs and are still a very powerful force," he said. "They made it clear long ago they were gunning for Greg, and they got him."
Manley also said the controversy surrounding Jaczko "ends and begins" with the now-abandoned Yucca Mountain repository and that Republicans in the House and Senate aligned with their industry supporters to oust the safety advocate. Their campaign to drive Jaczko out of office was a "brazen power play" that paid off, even though no one has ever publicly stated the existence of such an effort, he said.
But Manley said Jaczko's resignation won't change Reid's opposition to Yucca Mountain, an issue that is currently being hashed out in the courts (Greenwire, May 11).
"As long as he's around, Yucca won't be built. Any attempts to move it legislatively through the House or Senate are doomed to fail as long as Senator Reid's around," Manley said.
When asked about the future of Yucca Mountain following his departure, Jaczko said "at this point, we have closed down our work on the program, and absent some other action, I don't see that changing."
Among House and Senate Republicans who have traditionally pushed for NRC's review of Yucca Mountain to continue, the chairman's announced resignation triggered different reactions.
In the House, Republicans on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee called on Obama to nominate a chairman who will release the agency's technical review of the Yucca Mountain site and move the project forward. Jaczko was key to halting NRC's review of the Energy Department's application to build the waste dump and close down the commission's evaluation of the site's scientific and technical suitability (E&ENews PM, July 21, 2011).
"After committing billions of taxpayer dollars and decades of scientific study, the NRC owes it to the American taxpayer to make a determination regarding whether the site can meet the scientific and technical thresholds to serve as a repository," Republicans on the panel said in a statement.
But in the Senate, Murkowski and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), another leader on nuclear issues, have reached out to Democrats to find a legislative solution for storing millions of tons of nuclear spent fuel that have been piling up across the country since Yucca Mountain was halted. Dillon said Murkowski believes the nation needs a long-term solution but recognizes there is not strong political support for Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
"Yucca is still something she's interested in, but she recognizes the political reality and is ready to move on to the next best thing," he said.
'Commitment to safety'
Jaczko's resignation marks a loss for environmental and anti-nuclear groups that pushed the commission to enact stricter safety measures, as well as for Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), another former Jaczko boss and a nuclear skeptic.
Markey said in a statement yesterday that Jaczko's decision is "an immeasurable loss for the Commission" and that he led a "Sisyphean fight against some of the nuclear industry's most entrenched opponents of strong, lasting safety regulations, often serving as the lone vote in support of much-needed safety upgrades."
Markey also said he will call on the White House to nominate a successor with the same safety stance.
The Union of Concerned Scientists said Jaczko "often took a more cautious approach on plant safety and security than his colleagues on the commission" and "generally supported larger safety margins in the face of uncertainty."
Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica said in a statement that President Obama should take Jaczko's resignation and Svinicki's renomination as an opportunity to "address the cozy relationship between the NRC and the nuclear industry it is supposed to regulate."
Jaczko acknowledged yesterday that the most challenging part of his job was making decisions regarding nuclear safety.
"These are always very subjective decisions about what is the appropriate action that's in the public interest, and I think that's led to some very interesting debates and discussions with me and my commissioners," he said. "I wouldn't necessary call that a bad thing; I'd call that a good thing."
Jaczko would not comment on what he plans to do next and said that decision will be made when his successor at NRC is identified and confirmed. As for the safety focus, he said he hopes the Obama administration will find someone likewise passionately committed.
"I'm certainly hopeful that the president will nominate a successor that has the same focus and committment to safety as I've tried to have here as chairman and as I know the staff has at the agency," he said. "At the end, that will be up to the president and to the Congress and the Senate to decide who that person will be."