As It Happens

Why the man once in charge of U.S. nuclear energy now wants to see it banned

"I now believe that nuclear power’s benefits are no longer enough to risk the welfare of people living near these plants," writes Gregory Jaczko, former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission now works in the wind energy industry

Gregory Jaczko is pictured here in 2011, when he was the chair of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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Transcript

As a young nuclear scientist, Gregory Jaczko was fascinated by the potential of nuclear power to produce clean energy.

And as chair of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission under former president Barack Obama, it was his job to assure the public that U.S. nuclear power facilities were safe.

But today, he is calling for a global ban on nuclear power.

"I now believe that nuclear power's benefits are no longer enough to risk the welfare of people living near these plants," Jaczko, founder of the offshore wind energy company Wind Future, wrote in the Washington Post.

He spoke to As It Happens guest host Gillian Findlay about his dramatic about-face. Here is part of their conversation. 

Given your previous positions, this is quite a statement. Why do you think nuclear power should be banned?

I think if you look at the reasons for nuclear power, there's really two or three reasons — that it produces electricity that's relatively stable [and] it doesn't emit greenhouse gas emissions.

When you think of those ideas, you know, it makes sense to have nuclear power. But when you really delve into the facts, it turns out that nuclear really doesn't deliver those things in a way that's really meaningful.

The fundamental challenge we face today is dealing with climate change. And nuclear power simply is not a good solution for that.

You used to be quite optimistic about the potential for nuclear energy precisely because of climate change. What's changed?

The first thing that changed is that there are now better ways to generate carbon-free electricity. We have renewable energy. We have geothermal, hydro, solar, wind.

All of these sources produce electricity and they produce it cheaper than nuclear power, and they don't have the kinds of problems that nuclear power has when it comes to accident risk or environmental contamination or even health effects on people.

Jaczko talks with anti-nuclear protesters outside the gate of the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, N.Y., on May 10, 2011. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

I want to talk a little bit more about your own evolution — your personal evolution. You wrote in your piece in the Washington Post that 2005 is when your views began to shift. And then something happened in 2011 that was important. What was that?

In 2011, I was the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and I dealt with a major nuclear power plant accident in [Fukushima,] Japan.

This was really the first time that I had to confront the realities of a nuclear accident — the [evacuations], the crisis mode that ensued both in Japan and here in the United States as they struggled and we struggled to help them get these reactors under control.

That was very different than the hypothetical computer simulations I had dealt with previous to that.

You say that at that point, it was your job to reassure the American public that everything was going to be OK. But even then you were starting to doubt whether that was true.

Yeah, there was incident after incident while this accident was unfolding. The things I thought, or I'd been led to believe, were true about nuclear power just turned out not to be true.

What I did promise at that time was that the agency that I led would look at these issues and identify things that needed to be improved to make the plant safer.

And it was really when I dove into implementing those recommendations that I really saw the power of the industry as it tried to downplay this accident and argue that it really wasn't a big deal, when, in fact, I knew from personal experience that it was.

Tell me a bit about that. What was the pushback from the industry?

It was the kind of lobbying that you would expect from a very powerful industry. They were working with allies in the Congress to really try and water down or walk away from the safety recommendations that the staff of my agency had produced.

And, in fact, I recall getting a phone call from a very powerful congressman at the time who essentially said to me: "Look, you know, why don't you just downplay some of this? Why don't you tone down your support of the staff recommendations?"

I said, "Congressman, it's my job to support these recommendations. I'm the chairman of the agency that produced these, whose job it is to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants. I can't walk away from these findings."

Jaczko — who founded a wind energy company — says the future of clean energy is wind and solar. (Patricia Castellanos/AFP/Getty Images)

And now you've come even further than that and you are calling for nuclear energy to be banned. How realistic is that?

The reality is that that's actually easier than it appears, because the cheapest way to generate electricity today is through wind and solar. So you can begin to replace those plants with this kind of technology. And, in fact, you can do it more cheaply than the electricity you're getting from these nuclear generators.

You now own, I understand, a wind power company yourself, which I suspect your critics might point to as a potential conflict. Is your position in any way influenced by that?

I'd like to think of it as an intellectual honesty on my part that I think that's where the future is.

I started a company a few years ago to try and do development in the wind space and in other clean energy areas. And it's because of what I saw in the marketplace that I realized this is where the opportunities are.

How do you persuade people to change?

I think, to a large extent, government just has to stay out of the way and let the market work and it's going to be doing the right thing — like I said, the right thing for the planet and the right thing for your pocketbook.

Written by Richard Raycraft and Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced for radio by Richard Raycraft. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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