WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said on Monday that he would resign, following a year of intense criticism over his abrasive management style.
Jaczko, 41, did not give a reason for stepping down more than a year before his term expired.
The move comes after a year in which Jaczko drew headlines from a series of reports and congressional hearings that painted him as a bully who had reduced some senior female employees to tears.
The accusations, which he consistently dismissed and denied, overshadowed the expensive new rules he championed in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.
Having cast himself as a reformer at an agency where change typically happens at a glacial pace, Jaczko was long an irritant for the nuclear power industry, which fears the new regulations could drive up costs at the same time that cheap natural gas heightens competition.
“I think it just wears you out. You can only get beat on so long, sometimes,” said a former Capitol Hill aide who knows Jaczko.
“For me it all comes back to money and an industry that wants to hand-pick their regulators, put them in place, then employ them when they’re done,” the former aide said.
Republicans, with an eye to elections in November, were quick to cheer his departure, and urged the White House to quickly replace Jaczko. That appointment, which require confirmation by the Senate, could happen in tandem with the reconfirmation of a Republican commissioner, Kristine Svinicki, whose term expires next month.
The head of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a lobby group, acknowledged in a statement that the industry had “differences” with Jaczko, but wished him well and urged the White House to quickly name a new chairman.
The White House likely will name someone more open to “consensus building,” said Ed Batts, a partner at law firm DLA Piper.
“It would seem likely that his successor .. will be from a more conventional background, either a technocrat or academic, and perhaps less of a dynamic personality,” Batts said.
Jaczko got his start in Washington as a young, socially conscious physicist helping his then-boss Harry Reid, now Senate majority leader, block a plan to store radioactive waste under Nevada’s Yucca mountain.
Jaczko, a Democrat, had served at the NRC for almost eight years, and was appointed to the chairman role by President Barack Obama.
“He was a decent guy but he was too direct,” said Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California.
“To run the NRC he needed to be much more diplomatic, much more circumspect,” Meshkati said.
The resignation comes as the nuclear agency overhauls safety rules for the nation’s 104 nuclear plants, owned by companies such as Exelon and Entergy Corp.
It also recently approved licenses for the first new U.S. plants in more than 30 years, owned by Southern Co and Scana Corp.
Jaczko cast the lone dissenting vote against the new licenses, drawing ire from the industry and Republicans.
In a statement, Jaczko said he would serve until the Senate confirms his successor. The White House plans to nominate a new chairman soon, a spokesman said in a statement.
“This is the right time to pass along the public safety torch to a new chairman,” Jaczko said, thanking NRC staff — but notably leaving out his fellow commissioners at the helm of the agency.
The four other commissioners at the NRC — two Democrats and two Republicans — took the unprecedented step last year of complaining to the White House about Jaczko.
Uncomfortable hearings on Capitol Hill followed, where the commissioners detailed their concerns, and Republicans grilled Jaczko.
At the time, Bill Daley, then White House chief of staff, expressed his support for Jaczko and urged the commissioners to get along, perhaps with help from a mediator.
But the rancor did not fade. Republicans helped revive the story when the White House was slow to renominate Svinicki this spring. House Republicans had a hearing planned for next week expected to focus on Jaczko’s tactics.
The inner turmoil at the NRC first attracted public scrutiny a year ago, when the agency’s inspector general, an internal watchdog, released a report that described Jaczko as someone who often lost his temper and used threats and intimidation to try to get his way.
The NRC’s inspector general is expected to imminently release a follow-up report about Jaczko’s leadership style, although the timing and content of the report is not clear.
“The only thing surprising about his resignation is the fact that the Obama administration has remained silent for more than a year after allegations of Jaczko’s offensive behavior surfaced,” said Mitch McConnell, Republican leader in the U.S. Senate.
But Jaczko’s defenders said the accusations were amplified by opponents to distract the agency from its reforms.
“These attempts to make a slender, balding particle physicist appear to be careening about the NRC like Mike Tyson with Evander Holyfield’s ear in his teeth were always complete nonsense,” said Peter Bradford, an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School and a former commissioner at the NRC.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Timothy Gardner in Washington and Scott DiSavino in New York; Editing by Dale Hudson, Russell Blinch, M.D. Golan and Bob Burgdorfer