Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr.

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 3, 2007

Edward McGaffigan Jr., 58, the longest-serving member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, died of melanoma Sept. 2 at Capital Hospice in Arlington County.

Appointed twice by President Bill Clinton, in 1996 and 2000, and reappointed by President Bush in 2005, Mr. McGaffigan served for 11 years. The NRC gave him its Distinguished Service Award in 2006.

Mr. McGaffigan worked for the federal government for more than 30 years, with stints at the State Department, at the White House and on Capitol Hill.

At the NRC, he focused on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of processes dealing with reactor oversight and reactor license renewals. He testified before Congress more than 20 times on safety and security at the nation's nuclear facilities and helped design improved security for those plants.

Last month, after undercover congressional investigators obtained an NRC license that enabled them to buy enough radioactive material from U.S. suppliers to build a "dirty bomb," Mr. McGaffigan defended the agency, noting that the NRC has had to allocate finite resources to the biggest potential threats to public safety.

The NRC temporarily halted issuing new licenses, modified its procedures and lifted the ban two weeks later. Mr. McGaffigan said one serious hurdle remained: "We have to fix the problem of people taking our licenses and counterfeiting them."

Perhaps his most controversial moment came in January, when he said the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site in Nevada is deeply flawed and should be scrapped. "It may be time to stop digging, and it may be time to rethink," he said, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "I think Yucca Mountain has been beset by bad law, bad regulatory policy, bad science policy, bad personnel policy, bad budget policy throughout its history."

The NRC monitors the Energy Department's work at the site, and its leaders will determine whether the site is safe and judge its operational plan when the Energy Department seeks a license for it, sometime between 2017 and 2027.

Supporters of the site objected, noting that he waited until he was planning to leave office before expressing those views. Mr. McGaffigan had planned to resign early this year, but his health improved, and he stayed on until his death.

Mr. McGaffigan was an advocate of nuclear energy, writing in his college alumni newsletter: "Almost every action we take is the subject of intense criticism by various anti-nuclear organizations, as they pursue their agenda of denying the nation the option of utilizing nuclear power to generate electricity. That would be a grave mistake. Indeed, the nation would be best served if we substantially increased nuclear generation and I believe that ultimately will happen, despite the anti-nuclear zealots' distortions and efforts to whip up public fear."

At a celebration of his career in November, he urged young idealists to do government work. "With [President John F.] Kennedy, serving government was a noble cause," he said. "Now Republicans and Democrats alike bash government when it suits their purposes."

Mr. McGaffigan, the son of an Irish immigrant laborer, grew up in Boston. He was the first in his family to graduate from college, in 1970 from Harvard University. He received master's degrees from the California Institute of Technology, in physics in 1974, and from Harvard, in public policy in 1976.

He worked at the Rand Corp. in 1974 and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1975. He joined the Foreign Service in 1976. Sent to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1978, he reported on Soviet energy and atomic energy developments and managed scientific cooperative efforts during a period when Andrei Sakharov was exiled to Gorky and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

"I had returned from Moscow a vehement anti-Soviet," he wrote in the alumni newsletter. He suggested that Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin not be allowed access to the State Department's underground garage but instead be received like all other ambassadors at the C Street NW main entrance. "It was great theater when Dobrynin's car was turned away from the garage in front of a host of TV cameras tipped off to the change in policy," he wrote.

He worked at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1981 to 1983, then joined the staff of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), advising him on science and technology matters for his work on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Mr. McGaffigan completed six Marine Corps marathons and one JFK 50-miler. He ran a half-marathon a few months before his death.

His wife of 18 years, Peggy Weeks McGaffigan, died in 2000.

Survivors include two children, Margaret Ruth McGaffigan and Edward Francis McGaffigan, both of Arlington; his mother, Margaret McGaffigan of Boston; a sister; and a brother.

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