Photo By NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Gregory Jaczko’s safety fetish offended the nuclear power industry.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who is already keeping a lot of balls in the air, has just been handed another—confirmation of whoever President Obama appoints to replace the departing chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Gregory Jaczko.

The nuclear power industry is rejoicing over the departure of Jaczko, a physicist who tried to build a “safety culture” in the agency and the industry.

Reid, who handpicked Jaczko for the post, is currently handling or has in recent days dealt with legislation to extend the Export-Import Bank’s charter, fended off Republican demands that tax increases scheduled for next year be cancelled, tried to advance S. 3187—a measure dubbed “the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act”—and encountered Republican resistance when he tried to move sanctions against Iran through the Senate. In addition, he was getting a nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit approved and trying to prevent GOP tampering with Medicare.

The Jaczko resignation thus came at a time when Reid already has plenty to do. But the chairmanship of the NRC is not a post Reid can afford to ignore because of efforts by the nuclear power industry to dump nuclear waste in his home state. Jaczko has been an important figure in the effort to end the Yucca Mountain project.

Jaczko, a former science advisor to the Nevada senator, was appointed to the NRC as a commissioner by George W. Bush and was sworn in on Jan. 21, 2005. President Obama, on Reid’s recommendation, appointed Jaczko to chair the commission on May 13, 2009. His term still has 13 months to run.

As NRC chair, Jaczko emphasized a safety agenda, which irritated the nuclear power industry but looked good after the accident at the Fukushima Da-ichi reactors in Japan on March 11, 2011. But it also made it more difficult to license power plants.

Jaczko announced his resignation two days after White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked, “Jay, is there any thought being given in the White House to asking Chairman Jaczko at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to step down?” Carney responded, “Not that I’m aware of, no.”

The reaction to Jaczko’s resignation was not surprising.

“The greenies have lost their guy at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” wrote Greg Pollowitz of National Review, a conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr.

Natural Resources Defense Council nuclear program director Christopher Paine said, “Greg Jaczko set a high standard as America’s chief nuclear power safety regulator. His departure—and President Obama’s selection of a successor—points to the continuing need to prevent the nuclear industry from exercising undue influence at the commission, a tough challenge indeed, given its recent history.”

Reid praised Jaczko and so did his Republican colleague, Sen. Dean Heller. “While we need to responsibly develop all of our nation’s energy resources, including nuclear energy, the irresponsible history of Yucca Mountain undermines the integrity of the project,” Heller said. “Chairman Jaczko played an important role in opposing Yucca Mountain, and I hope his successor will continue this fight.”

“His appointment as chairman was a bit of blackmail on the part of Senator Reid to force the death of the Yucca Mountain Project,” wrote Forbes magazine staffer James Conca. Blackmail is usually waged against an unwilling participant, but Obama was quite willing.

In an Oct. 13 letter last year, NRC commissioners George Apostolakis, William Magwood IV, William Ostendorff and Kristine Svinicki wrote, “In a long series of very troubling actions taken by Chairman Jaczko, he has undermined the ability of the commission to function.” They said Jaczko “intimidated and bullied” the NRC’s senior staff.

More recently, Jaczko was accused of verbally abusing some women at the agency, a charge he flatly denied. Republicans in the House called Jaczko and other figures in the dispute to testify at a hearing. They kept raising the issue after the hearing.

An inspector general’s report in 2011 was critical of Jaczko for holding back information from other commissioners on the NRC decision to halt a safety review of the proposed dump for high-level nuclear wastes at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in Nye County. At one point, Jaczko apologized to his colleagues.

U.S. Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts issued a report that said Jaczko was the victim, not the perpetrator of infighting on the commission. Markey said the four “conspired, with each other and with senior NRC staff, to delay the release of and alter [the content of] the NRC Near-Term Task Force report on Fukushima.” Further, email messages showed that the four commissioners “assumed ill intent on the part of the chairman” and tried to “undermine his efforts or refuse his requests.”

Reid must decide whether to try to push through another nominee for NRC chair at a time when Republicans would prefer to delay until a GOP president may be in the White House next January. But waiting has its drawbacks for them, too—Jaczko resigned effective when his successor is confirmed.

More on Reid’s load

Meanwhile, a new book argues that Reid proposed a solution to last year’s budget deadlock that he believed would fail.

Reid last year proposed to end the deadlock by creating a special committee to work out an agreement. The U.S. Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction—dubbed the Super Committee by the press—was set up and given a strict timetable to follow. Its first meeting was Sept. 16. By Oct. 19 the Washington Post was reporting that the committee had “yet to reach consensus on the most basic elements of a plan to restrain government borrowing.” On Nov. 21 the committee gave up.

As the end of the committee’s deliberations approached, Reid blamed the failure on lobbyist Grover Norquist. Reid read statements Norquist had made in which he bragged that he had elicited promises from Republican leaders not to support any deal that included tax increases and threatened the GOP cochair of the committee with political retribution if any hikes emerged.

“You’ll have to admit it is a little disheartening to read the stuff to you I read from Grover Norquist,” Reid told reporters.

He also said, “I have no regrets whatsoever about the suggestion that I made for a super committee. … I was hoping that there would be a lot of hand holding and hugs and pats on the back and we’d be headed off to Thanksgiving. But at this stage, we’ve seen a few arm locks and a few—what do you call it when you put someone’s, you lock somebody around the neck? … Headlock, that’s what it is.”

But a new book reports that Reid never expected the committee to succeed.

In Do Not Ask What Good We Do, a book about the U.S. House, author Robert Draper wrote, “It was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s novel proposition that if 535 congressmen and senators couldn’t agree on how to solve America’s deficit problem over a period of seven months, perhaps a dozen of them could [do it] within 10 weeks. The wily majority leader knew better, of course. As Reid would later confide, he came up with the idea of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, or Super Committee, fully expecting that it would fail.”

A request to Reid’s office for a response to the book’s claim went unanswered.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...