Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gnomes from the Northern Kingdom defend Jaczko

Peter Bradford and Mark Cooper have words for the other four NRC commissioners. They're wrong.

Peter Bradford
former NRC Commissioner
The New York Times reports that two leading anti-nuclear activists based in Vermont have spoken up in defense of Gregory Jaczko, the controversial chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Peter Bradford, a former NRC Commissioner himself, and Mark Cooper, an energy analyst, answered questions from reporters during a conference call Dec 28 in which they said there is no such thing as a nuclear renaissance.

In the course of the dialog, they offer the view that Gregory Jaczko is the victim of a conspiracy by the "nuclear party" which they describe as a body of pro-nuclear interests that transcend political and party differences.

To back it up they claim that what the other four commissioners were really up to in writing a letter to the White House about Jacko's reported abrasive management style is to show him the door.

That's the first of two things they go wrong.  The other is that the outlook for nuclear energy is bleak.

Why there is no conspiracy

My view is that the reason the letter was written is that the four commissioners couldn't agree on anything else. When asked during a hearing of the House Oversight Committee whether Jaczko should resign, two said yes (Svinicki, Ostendorf), the other two said no (Magwood, Apostolakis).  Note that all four are united in the letter to White House Chief of Staff William Daley about the issue of a "chilled environment," per se, but that is after they failed to agree on whether Jaczko should resign as chairman.

The truth at the heart of the personality dispute is found in a comment by Apostolakis who said he was OK with Jaczko staying on the job as long as he could learn to control his temper.  The issue of what authority the chairman really has will have to be hashed out in quieter times.  Clearly, this is not a situation like the famous gunpowder plot of Guy Fawkes against the British Parliament.

Guy Fawkes,
famous conspirator
What we have here is a failure to communicate. There are a couple of intractable disagreements and they've prevented all four commissioners from presenting a united front to the Chairman's use of emergency authority during the Fukushima crisis.

The fact that the other four commissioners couldn't agree on whether Jacko should stay or go because he has a hot temper sounds almost comical, more like an echo of a Bob's Big Boy commercial.

This isn't a debate about keeping the trademark for a chain of sit down fast food joints. It's a serious issue of how a top federal official conducts himself in office.

For Bradford and Cooper to call it a "conspiracy" misses the point.  Dealing with inexcusable behavior in a professional setting is something that should have been handled with kid gloves with behind closed doors and that would have been a conspiracy. If there is blame to be assigned to Jaczko for objectionable outbursts,there is also a portion of blame to be assigned to the other four commissioners for not dealing with the issue as a united group.

Worse, the disagreement, e.g., should he stay or should he go, was most likely seen as a sign of weakness by the politically astute Jaczko who, having worked the as a staff aide in both the House and Senate, apparently has more focus on the implications such nuances than technocrats.

It follows that by the time the personality conflicts inside the NRC reached a flash point, that inability to agree on how to reign in the rambunctious chairman was turned into an consensus to kick the problem upstairs the the White House.

That, in my view, was a mistake since it likely served only to annoy a President, and his Chief of Staff who have much bigger fish to fry.  Jaczko's apology was not really to the other commissioners. It was to the president for creating a needless distraction and for offering the Republican House yet another dartboard with his likeness pasted in the bulls eye.

In summary, there is no conspiracy to get rid of Jaczko because the alleged conspirators didn't have their act together as a group. They punted hoping for success with the DC equivalent of a 46 yard field goal.  The kick went wide of the mark blown off course by ill-favored political winds.

Even Rep. John Shimkus, (R-IL), who explicitly said he wanted Jaczko fired, also said that the whole ruckus didn't amount to much since there were no legal grounds to force Jacko out of the job.

Why the "bleak" assessment is wrong

Mark Cooper,
Energy Analyst
Bradford and Cooper say in their comments to the New York Times the outlook for the nuclear renaissance is "bleak."

As long as critics of nuclear energy like Bradford and Cooper do not look beyond the U.S. coastline, their views may prevail, but globally they are off the mark.

In Asia China, India, and Vietnam are aggressively developing nuclear energy.

In Europe the Czech Republic has released a tender for up to five reactors $28 billion.  The UK has started down a road to build 17 GWE of new nuclear powered generating capacity.  That new build is worth approximately $68 billion.

In the Middle East the UAE is building four new nuclear reactors supplied by South Korea in a project worth $30 billion.

The really big news is that in 2012 Saudi Arabia will release a tender for up to 16 new reactors expected to be worth $112 billion.

Also, Bradford and Cooper seem to have missed the news that TVA completed Browns Ferry in 2007, will complete Watts Bar in 2013, and has let over a $1 billion in engineering and construction contracts to finish Bellefonte by 2020.

It seems that globally there is a reality check on their "bleak" outlook for the industry.  It doesn't take much energy analysis to add up these numbers.

Consider the source

Both Bradford and Cooper have long standing views that the use of nuclear energy is not a sound policy for the U.S.  Coincidentally, both men are listed as adjunct faculty of the Institute for Energy & Environment of the Vermont Law School.  Both men are supporters of Vermont Governor Peter Schumlin's campaign to close the Vermont Yankee reactor.

Bradford lists in his online bio that he is vice-chair of the board of directors of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group which frequently takes anti-nuclear positions.

Cooper lists a long history of engagements in rate hearings and related energy economics issues.  He has frequently testified on behalf of anti-nuclear contentions against the construction of new nuclear reactors.

Both men have sprung to Jaczko's defense clearly indicating that his future tenure at the NRC is aligned with their interests.

Consider the environment

What's interesting is their use of the term "bleak."  Could it be something about Vermont?

NEK in winter
The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is a ruggedly rural and heavily forested area prized by outdoor enthusiasts in all seasons. It is also thought to be inhabited by gnomes, said to be a clannish people.

In 16th century renaissance Europe they identified with interests who opposed advances in the arts, sciences, and what we now call the humanities. Perhaps the term 'gnomes' is a metaphor for a state of mind.

Getting back to Vermont, the state that is, the winter in the Kingdom can be a bleak landscape and the climate is a challenge to commerce. Perhaps Bradford and Cooper had that environment on their minds when they spoke with the newspaper.  Perhaps that's what makes it hospitable to gnomes. The climate keeps people out.

Well, that won't too much longer if the atmosphere keeps heating up because we as a species are building lots of natural gas plants, which still spew CO2, instead of nuclear reactors which produce none.

In any case, a bias towards seeing conspiracies where none exist, and a provincial perspective that stops at the water's edge when it comes to the fortunes of a greenhouse gas emission free global industry, do not serve the nation or the planet well.

# # #


Paul Dickman said...


Better re-check your notes. The four were unified in their opinion that Jaczko should resign or be removed as Chairman otherwise they would not have sent that extraordinary letter. It would be his choice to serve the balance of his term as a commissioner or resign.

Also, you refer to this as a "personality dispute" which is wrong. This is about a chilled work environment and that was made very clear by all.

Dan Yurman said...


I agree that all four were united in the letter to White House Chief of Staff William Daley about the issue of a "chilled environment," per se, but that is after they failed to agree on whether Jaczko should resign as chairman.


Robin said...

Seems to me that the issue presented was abuse of staff members, abuse of authority, and chilled work environment. These issues have nothing to do with nuclear energy and could just have easily been raised against a political appointee anywhere else in Washington without having the discussion about nuclear -- good or bad -- coming into it. Our industry mouth pieces have utterly failed us by not keeping the focus on this as the real problem and putting it into a perspective that we could fight and win with.

Andrea Jennetta, Publisher said...

Gnomes! Excellent. Thank you, Dan!

Jack Keeling said...

I have worked as an engineer in the nuclear power industry for 42 years at such places as TVA (still kicking and full of nonsense); Clinton Plant, Illinois, under the inept Illinois Power Company (owner now defunct, plant doing well under Exelon); Rancho Seco (closed by SMUD voters in 1989); and Comanche Peak.

The latter, troubled as it was in the 1980s, has been exemplary in its performance since a Corrective Action Program under control of Stone & Webster reversed thinking of plant personnel.

Although I am far from supporting Gregory Jaczko and the president who appointed him, I have a hard time disagreeing with what seems to be Jaczko's overall position. Jaczko appears to favor licensing of new plants, while he seems to oppose life extension of existing plants and continuation of Yucca Mountain.

Existing plants were all designed prior to 1979 under different engineering attitudes from those prevailing in the industry today, under which new plants are designed. I spent my first ten years in an atmosphere where engineers viewed a nuclear reactor as a 'nuclear boiler,' operating under the same principles as a fossil-fuel fired boiler; it just used nuclear fuel. Consequently much of the design we did was a mimic of the fossil-fired plants.

There are likely latent errors in these designs; from time to time, under the current post-Chernobyl (and now post-Fukushima Daiichi) atmosphere which views a nuclear reactor as posing a serious threat to the environment, one of these is found and prompt corrective actions are taken. Consequently, an atmosphere where current plants are phased out and replaced by new plants may be appropriate.

And Yucca Mountain was an uncertain venture. I think there are better ways to dispose of the highly-radioactive fission byproducts, which our great grandchildren will utilize a halfcentury from now. In the meantime, dry-cask storage on site is the answer.

And from the vantage point of my North Texas residency in the heart of the Barnett shale gas fields, and with recent gas prices falling to record levels, had the start of the Nuclear Renaissance not preceded the development of recent Shale gas development, it never would have happened. And it may be yet in jeopardy. Look on page 14 of the Bellefonte report on the TVA Website; TVA shows gas-fired generation will be less costly than nuclear generation from Bellefonte if the cost of natural gas is twice the current level.

I like the analogy of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and find it highly applicable, but I wonder if it is not a counter to a similar analogy of an area the blog author loves 1500 miles to the west, the Northwest Free State of Idaho.

Meredith Angwin said...

Hi Dan.

Great post, Dan.

It is bleak up here. But don't blame the Northeast Kingdom (NEK). That area certainly has people who don't like nuclear energy, but as a whole, NEK is more conservative and more pro-nuclear than the southern tier of the state.

I would call the opponents "Vermont Law School Gnomes." Cooper doesn't even live in Vermont.The phone number I have for him is in Maryland. I think he spends most of his time at the Consumer Federation of America in D.C.

The VLS clan of gnomes are the usual type of people on the fringes of power in Washington DC. Don't blame Vermont for them!

Rick Maltese said...

When two anti nuclear activists defend the NRC chair that really speaks volumes about our worst fear, that is, that Jaczko is also anti nuclear. The NRC is not suppose to be a punishing body with a bias. They are suppose to serve the country in an unbiased and rational manner.

Rod Adams said...

The people who are standing up to defend Chairman Jaczko against the serious charge of having established a "chilled work environment" are exposing the organizational weakness called "groupthink". They have developed patterns of behavior and decision making that are strongly influenced by the fact that they have spent many years talking to their small groups of antinuclear activists. They believe that their way of thinking is the only way to think because few people (within their tight circle) ever says anything different.

They (including Jaczko) are not aware of the way that others think and act. They are not aware of what it means to a nuclear professional when someone describes a "chilled work environment". They may think that the hubbub surrounding the Chairman has died out simply because of the quiet period around holiday vacations.

I suspect that action to constrain, demote, or encourage resignation will continue.

I also suspect that the normally trusting decision makers at NEI, INPO, and ANS will finally recognize that Chairman Jaczko had two mentors that influenced his definition of "nuclear safety". He was not just tasked with stopping Yucca Mountain for his second boss, but he was also tasked with implementing Markey's notion that the only safe nuclear plant is one that is not operating to compete with natural gas and coal. (Rep. Ed Markey was Jaczko's first boss. He was the man that brought Jaczko inside the Beltway so that he could pursue his dream of implementing policy instead of pursuing a science career.)

People breathed a sigh of relief when Jaczko FINALLY ran out of ways to delay the AP1000 design certification, but here are many delay opportunities that remain before those plants are producing power. Never forget the Shoreham Syndrome and never forget the unprecedented action that Jaczko took during the summer of 2011 to publicly release a statement about his concerns regarding the AP1000 design.

His recent effort to disrupt the formerly smoothly running license extension process is terribly worrying to me. As a nation, we cannot afford to discard emission free, low marginal cost, reliable power plants to replace them with very temporarily cheap natural gas. Antinuclear activists are, by default, pro fossil activists no matter how many times they deny that fact.

Gwyneth Cravens said...

Excellent post, Dan.

And it elicited some good comments.

Cooper and Bradford must love fossil fuel combustion a lot.

Thanks all around.