Michael Shellenberger is president of Environmental Progress, an independent research organization.
Nuclear energy has seen better days. It has declined from 18 to 10 percent of global electricity since its peak in 1994, and its market share may fall further as the United States, Germany, France and other nations close plants in response to abundant new supplies of natural gas and the 2011 accident in Fukushima, Japan. Compounding nuclear’s woes are huge cost overruns in new plant construction, which suggests to some that the technology is too expensive and dangerous to survive.
Yet, at the same time, governments are acting to prevent the closure of nuclear plants, which produce fewer carbon emissions than some other energy sources. Lawmakers in Illinois, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey who are concerned about climate change have recently awarded subsidies to nuclear plants so they can keep operating in the face of cheap natural gas. And voters and lawmakers in Arizona and Georgia, and overseas in Finland, France, South Korea and Taiwan, have all opted to stick with nuclear.
What exactly is going on? Do we need nuclear to deal with climate change, or can we rely solely on renewables? Are safety fears warranted or overblown?
Few people would appear to be more qualified to answer those questions than Gregory B. Jaczko, who served as a commissioner (2005-2009) and chairman (2009-2012) of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the agency charged with ensuring the safety of America’s 60 nuclear plants.
But anyone seeking answers to those questions won’t find them in Jaczko’s new book, “Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator.” Instead of exploring whether we need nuclear energy and whether it is safe, Jaczko focuses on his rocky tenure, which ultimately led to his resignation.
Jaczko writes that he was “run out of town” because he was the NRC’s “sole advocate” for vital safety reforms, but the story is more complicated than that.
In 2011, all four of Jaczko’s fellow commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans — took the unprecedented step of publicly condemning him in front of Congress. In the aftermath of the Fukushima accident, one commissioner testified, Jaczko “became increasingly irrational” and “sort of snapped.”
The NRC’s inspector general investigated and found 15 episodes of behavior that was “not supportive of an open and collaborative work environment,” including one instance when three female NRC staffers broke down crying after Jaczko berated them publicly. “It was like ‘The Exorcist,’” the commissioner, a fellow Democrat, testified.
In his book, Jaczko grants that he “sometimes behaved in a way that could be described as hotheaded” and that he had a “propensity to occasionally lose my cool” — but only because he cared so much about safety.
Toward the end of his “Confessions,” Jaczko admits that he wasn’t actually run out of town but rather was asked to resign amid all the controversy. During his tenure, he faced scrutiny not only for his personal conduct but also for his responses to the Fukushima accident. Five days after a tsunami slammed into the coast of Japan, triggering the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima plant, Jaczko told Congress that he and his colleagues believed water had drained out of a pool where used fuel was being cooled, which would have made the situation far worse.
His speculation, which turned out to be inaccurate — the water hadn’t leaked — stoked panic in Japan among a population already rattled by an earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people. While Jaczko acknowledges that his testimony was “unfortunate,” he quickly returns to the book’s theme: He was a victim. “Many nuclear power proponents,” he writes, “would see the Fukushima crisis as a chance to remove me from my position.”
After his NRC years, Jaczko had a change of heart about nuclear energy. Early in the book, he writes, “I was basically a nuclear power moderate: intrigued by the technology but cautious of the potential harm.”
But halfway through his “Confessions,” Jaczko says bluntly, “We must stop using nuclear power,” and at the end he praises the “ever-decreasing cost of renewable energy and natural gas.”
In recent years, Jaczko has become a wind energy entrepreneur. He founded Wind Future, a company whose website promises “the right mix of knowledge and experience to make wind energy a feasible and profitable renewable energy source.”
By Gregory B. Jaczko
Simon & Schuster. 196 pp. $26