Under a withering assault from the industry, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko is stepping down, effective upon the confirmation of his successor, according to a statement from Jaczko.
The resignation follows months of bureaucratic knife-wielding by the four industry-backed members of the five-person panel. Like something out of Dumas, the passionate infighting stretched back decades. The industry effort was spearheaded by Democratic Commissioner Bill Magwood. Magwood, it turned out, had led a strikingly similar coup against his boss at the Department of Energy before taking his spot, a saga first reported by HuffPost late last year as the coup was unfolding.
Magwood’s ally at the time was Alex Flint, then a GOP Senate staffer who took the lead on nuclear policy. He’s now the top lobbyist for the nuclear industry — whose criticism of Jaczko coincided with Magwood’s dramatic assault.
Jaczko and the pro-industry commissioners clashed over his opposition to using Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a depository for nuclear waste. The commissioners further accused him of heavy-handed leadership when he put the NRC on emergency footing following the Fukishima disaster in 2011. They argued that he was pushing forward too fast with costly new safety regulations.
HuffPost reported that Magwood, who spent his career moving in and out of the private sector, had done nuclear safety consulting for the company that owns the Fukishima nuclear power plant. Magwood confirmed the consulting work during Senate testimony, but said that his connections have not influenced his decision-making.
Jaczko, with the help of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), his Senate patron; Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), his former boss in the House; and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the environment and public works committee; staved off the threat to his position in the face of multiple demands from the GOP that he resign. The White House, meanwhile, stood by Jaczko, with then-Chief of Staff Bill Daley suggesting the equivalent of couples counseling.
But on Monday, Jaczko called it quits. “After nearly eight years on the Commission, I am announcing my resignation as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, effective upon the confirmation of my successor. My responsibility and commitment to safety will continue to be my paramount priority after I leave the Commission and until my successor is confirmed,” he said.
“I thank Chairman Jaczko for always fighting for the health and safety of the American people,” Boxer said in a statement. “I look forward to the President’s nomination of a successor that will carry the same level of concern in this post-Fukushima era.”
Reid, meanwhile, said Jaczko “dedicated his tenure to improving the safety of nuclear energy, and his leadership during the Fukushima nuclear crisis protected millions of Americans. His work toward a safe and effective nuclear energy policy has left Nevada and the nation more secure.”
In an interview with HuffPost, Jaczko declined to endorse either of the two Democrats on the panel for re-nomination, saying that the decision would be made by others.
The battle against Jaczko reveals the flip-side of corporate influence on politics. While the traditional understanding of money in politics has to do with favors and rewards, it works in reverse, too: Act against corporate interests, and become a target for personal destruction.
Magwood publicly accused Jaczko of abusive behavior toward women, charges that were never backed up, and were mocked by Boxer as “McCarthyist” in their lack of specificity.
“This is the ugly underbelly of large corporate lobbying,” said a former Democratic staffer, who has worked with the men at the center of both controversies and is now a corporate lobbyist himself, in December. “It really is by any means necessary.”
Jaczko, by announcing his resignation several months after the attempted coup, has likely put an end to the attack. His term was set to expire in June 2013, and given the controversy, it wouldn’t have been difficult for the GOP to bottle up his re-appointment.
The move gives the White House time to appoint its own nominee. That decision will likely be left to Reid, however, who is a strident opponent of turning Yucca Mountain into a waste depository.
“I am confident whomever replaces Chairman Jaczko will share his commitment to protecting the safety of the American people over the interests of a single industry. This is an opportunity for the nuclear industry to demonstrate its commitment to public safety by supporting a Chairperson who puts the safety of American citizens first,” Reid said.
“Greg was my trusted aide for many years and his talent in applying science to public policy was an asset to my staff and the state of Nevada,” Reid added. “I wish him well in his future endeavors.”
The Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying arm of the nuclear industry, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Jaczko’s resignation.
A separate former senior Democratic aide who has worked with Jaczko, Magwood and Flint said that Yucca was the impetus for the industry’s opposition to the outgoing chairman. Magwood “and the industry hate Greg because they think he was put on the commission by Reid, who’s anti-Yucca, and he’s gonna be a Reid stooge. And you know what? They’re f*cking right,” the former aide said. “That’s exactly why he was put on there. But that commission and that agency were complete and total captives of the nuclear industry. One and the same.”
UPDATE: 11:55 a.m. — Other members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works weighed in on Jaczko’s resignation shortly after it was announced.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee’s ranking member, said, “Throughout his time at the NRC, it was abundantly clear that Chairman Jaczko used his office to undermine the NRC to the point that all four of his fellow commissioners wrote to the President to ask for assistance as a last resort. With his resignation today, the NRC can focus on its mission of safety without the distractions of Jaczko’s inappropriate behavior.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who also sits on the committee, praised Jaczko’s efforts. “Chairman Jaczko has served the interests of the public extremely well on the commission,” Sanders said in a statement. “He has a consistent voting record supporting the swift implementation of strong safety reforms.”
Sanders added, “For his efforts to hold the nuclear industry accountable, Chairman Jaczko was subjected to repeated personal attacks made by some of his colleagues and pro-industry advocates in Congress. I am extremely disappointed he is leaving the Commission.”