Gregory Jaczko, the outgoing chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has been blunt about matters of nuclear safety. That candor has benefitted Toledo-area residents, as the commission considers FirstEnergy's request to extend by 20 years the license of its Davis-Besse nuclear plant and prepares for similar discussions about DTE Energy's Fermi 2 plant in Michigan.
Mr. Jaczko was the first NRC chairman who came from outside the nuclear industry. Throughout its history, the commission has struggled to shed its image as the industry's cheerleader.
Mr. Jaczko's brusque style alienated powerful critics, within the industry and the NRC. But he continued to emphasize the risks that nuclear power plants can pose if they are not managed properly.
He pursued safety recommendations that other commissioners sought to block, including the creation of a task force to examine the application of lessons from last year's Fukushima meltdown in Japan to America's 104 commercial nuclear plants. Those lessons are especially important for Fermi 2, which has a similar reactor design to Fukushima.
Mr. Jaczko fought aggressively for enhanced fire safety at nuclear plants, as well as improvements to emergency devices. He urged greater protection of nuclear plants from runaway aircraft and other potential terrorism threats.
NRC officials rebuked the chairman when he urged all U.S. citizens within 50 miles of the Fukushima meltdown to evacuate as a precaution, fearing the precedent that might set. State and local emergency officials in the United States generally limit their evacuation plans to 10 miles. Yet according to an internal document, senior NRC officials agreed in retrospect that the 50-mile evacuation proposal "was a good call."
Mr. Jaczko had a role in the NRC's decision to halt exploration of Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a potential repository for spent nuclear fuel. That decision has made it harder for utilities to finance construction of plants, such as DTE's proposal to build Fermi 3. But much of the waste that would have been transported to Yucca Mountain would have been shipped along the Ohio Turnpike.
Mr. Jaczko has held up the near-rupture of Davis-Besse's original reactor head in 2002 as a watershed moment for the commission. Most NRC employees were not on staff when that event occurred, he noted. The mishap stunned the NRC, he said, because "we were resting on past evidence to tell us it could not be an immediate safety concern and we got complacent."
Northwest Ohio benefits from nuclear power, especially for heavy industry. But the regulators who will decide whether to extend the Davis-Besse and Fermi 2 licenses must be fully engaged.
President Obama's choice to succeed Mr. Jaczko as NRC chairman is Allison Macfarlane, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. She served on a presidential commission that examined new strategies to manage nuclear waste.
Ms. Macfarlane has impressed nuclear watchdogs. The Senate should confirm her if she shows at her confirmation hearings that her commitment to regulating nuclear power appropriately is similar to Mr. Jaczko's.
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