The resignation of NRC Chairman Gregory Jackzo puts the issue of nuclear safety smack on the middle of Obama's desk, and then into the presidential race. That's a good thing. The NRC is not doing the job that the law and common sense require it to do. It is a captive of the nuclear industry, operates in secret and without due regard for the public health and safety. The NRC's relationship to the nuclear industry today is just what the SEC's relationship was to Wall Street four years ago. We are skating on very thin ice. The nomination of a new chairman, with the public debate that will follow is the best way to get it pointed in the right direction.
Full disclosure: I've been active for many years in the efforts to close Indian Point, because it's dangerous in design and operation, and within 50 miles of 22 million people, unlike any other American reactor. Those efforts have included litigation to force IP to stop taking three billion gallons of water a day from the Hudson River and returning it in polluted form, efforts to make the NRC adopt a real and workable evacuation plan for the region, and federal litigation, now before the courts, to stop the NRC from giving secret "exemptions" to IP from its own safety rules.
The conventional response from the nuclear industry has been to try to marginalize opponents by dismissing them as "anti-nuke activists." They've actually had some success at that, even as real events such as Three Mile Island and Fukushima have reminded every American about the realities of unsafe operation of nuclear plants.
But there's a growing awareness among some proponents of nuclear power, that a broken NRC actually hurts them as well. There's enormous political and economic muscle behind attempts to build new plants, with Obama in support, and taxpayer funded-corporate welfare already in place. But given the egregious behavior of the American nuclear industry, and the NRC, there remains massive resistance to a proliferation of new plants. So, fixing the NRC to a point where it enjoys the confidence of the American people turns out to be more than the goal of those opposed to nuclear power, it is the only way that "pro-nuke activists" can move forward.
Jackzo was in some ways trying to make that point. He got into trouble for a confrontational style, but in the end he was tanked by the dinosaurs in the nuclear industry. Their fond hope is to get a new chairman who will protect and expand the practices at the NRC that reduce their costs and endanger the American people.
Look at the issues the NRC really needs to decide. Spent fuel storage on reactor sites; spent fuel permanent storage; re-licensing of aged and non-conforming reactors; inadequate evacuation plans; terrorist attacks; earthquake protections; secret "exemptions" from safety rules, and much, much more.
Who Obama nominates and what he says about the NRC will be things that may get short shrift in an election year, but will do more to define the physical and economic security of the American people than most of what is now being debated. Let's recall the audacity of hope and hope for some audacity.