Were we better off with NRC ‘bully’?

The outgoing chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, had a reputation as a bully. Few, however, questioned his commitment to increasing the safety of the nation’s 104 nuclear plants.
His announcement Monday that he would leave office before his term expires was greeted by many with relief. His abrasive style, they said, distracted the NRC from its duties.
The concern all people living near nuclear plants should have is whether Jaczko’s aggressive behavior was a personality flaw, or a necessary reaction to NRC complacency.
When NRC hit TVA with a “red” finding last year – the worst possible short of closing the plant – TVA complained. The authority’s main gripe was that if its failures at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant merited a red finding, then almost all nuclear plants in the nation deserved the same sanction.
It was a frightening argument. Essentially, TVA was saying that NRC should back off because all nuclear plants had the same safety issues.
More frightening was that NRC took the argument seriously. After initially denying TVA’s appeal, NRC ordered a review of its own decision. The reason for the review, as an NRC spokesman explained it, was the “potential generic implications” of the red finding.
“It wasn’t so much what they had in their appeal as the implications it may have for other nuclear plants,” a spokesman said, that prompted the review.
The commission ultimately affirmed its red finding, but its initial indecision suggests the value of having a safety-conscious bully as chairman. The NRC’s mission cannot be to make nuclear plants as safe as is commercially feasible. Nuclear plants need to be safe, period.
Minor flaws can have disastrous consequences, as was demonstrated by the meltdowns last year in Japan. Fourteen months later, the evacuation zone extends 12.5 miles from the Japan plants. The same zone, extending from Browns Ferry, would empty Decatur and Athens.
If the departure of Jaczko signals an easing of NRC oversight, the Tennessee Valley will miss him. Browns Ferry is a valuable asset, but only if it is safe.

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