Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator–A Review by Glen Estill

By Glen Estill

Gregory Jaczko was an outsider.  He wasn’t from the industry.  But somehow he was appointed to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, eventually becoming its Chair.  His 2019 book,  Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator, exposes the decision- making processes used in regulating the most toxic substance on earth.  It is scary stuff.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is charged with ensuring the safety of nuclear production in the United States.   But are they arms length from industry?  No.  In many cases, the industry tells the regulator what they plan to do.  Is safety the paramount concern?  No.  The profit motive is alive and well, and things that add cost are fiercely resisted.  Does the industry learn from mistakes, like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima?  No.  The industry concludes that it can’t happen here, with our designs.  And little changes. 

Especially disturbing is the influence of politicians on the process of ensuring nuclear safety.  We would like to think that decisions on nuclear safety are decided by the best engineering minds, based on the best technical knowledge they have.  But the influence of powerful politicians, to curry favour with their donors, or to protect local jobs, shows that technical factors play second fiddle, and the process is driven by short term political considerations.  And don’t think political interference is a US problem alone.  After all, Canada’s former Prime Minister fired the chief nuclear regulator, when she refused to allow the Maple reactors to operate in what she considered an unsafe condition.  Political interference in nuclear safety happens around the world.

Nuclear reactors require backup generators, to ensure the cooling of the reactor can continue, even if the electrical grid is knocked out.  He tells the tale of the nuclear plant at Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, which when threatened by flooding in the Missouri river, used sandbags to prevent damage to the essential back up generator.  Thank goodness the upstream dams on the river held.  Can’t happen here?  Think again.

Mr. Jaczko makes is crystal clear.  There will be future nuclear disasters.  It is the nature of the business.  And especially when the regulator is unduly influenced by politicians, and the industry. 

The books final two sentences sum up the conclusion.  “I started my life as a scientist in awe of humans’ ability to see the genius of nature and harness it.  I left my job as a nuclear regulator humbled at what nature can do to turn our technological inventions against us.”

This book is a must read for all who regulate, or participate in the electricity generation business. 

Jaczko, Gregory. Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019. 208 pages. ISBN13: 9781476755762. $26.00 cloth. 5 x 0.7 x 8 inches. 9.6 oz.