The political education of a scientist-turned–nuclear energy regulator.
As chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Barack Obama, Jaczko was not a political insider; nor was he beholden to the industry that had invested and reaped billions of dollars from the proliferation of nuclear energy. He maintains that he was “a nuclear power moderate” when appointed to the commission, though one who “had become skeptical of the ability of the nuclear power industry to properly balance its fiscal responsibility to shareholders with the demands of public safety.” As with many regulatory agencies, nuclear power regulation seems to suffer from a fox-guarding-the-henhouse mentality. The financial stakes are huge, not only for the industry, but for those who benefit from the jobs the industry creates and the taxes it pays, which often support the communities where the reactors are located. Accidents are rare, but when they occur, as the lingering memory of Three Mile Island reminds us, the results can be devastating. Better safe than sorry, but how safe is safe? “What constitutes ‘safety’ is often determined by political, not just scientific, judgments,” writes the author, who experienced political resistance funded by anti-regulation lobbying throughout his tenure. “I was hardly anyone’s first choice for the job,” he admits, as even the Obama administration that appointed him expressed skepticism over his lack of administrative experience and the staffers he would oversee weren’t accustomed to working with someone so young (early 40s). Jaczko found himself consistently at odds not only with the industry he was charged with regulating and with their congressional supporters, but with the rest of his commission. The more he pushed for safeguards following the Japanese Fukushima accident in 2011, the stronger such resistance became, and he admits that “sometimes I behaved in a way that could be described as hotheaded.” Since resigning in 2012, he now advocates from the outside and maintains that “nuclear power is a failed technology.” A cautionary tale with a matter-of-fact tone.