Eye Of The Storm
July 5, 1999
By SUSAN E. KINSMAN and MICHAEL REMEZ
Soon after she took over as the head of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in mid-1995, Shirley Ann Jackson stared into the face of a regulatory hurricane.
Unresolved safety, regulatory and licensing issues at the Millstone nuclear power plants -- long overlooked by the oversight agency, and brought to public attention by a series of whistle-blowers -- had produced a maelstrom of public and political pressure.
Northeast Utilities shut down the three Waterford reactors in late 1995 and early 1996. Jackson vowed that they would not be allowed to restart until the problems were corrected.
She also promised to clean her own house with a series of institutional reforms aimed at restoring the credibility of the agency, which critics have long argued was too cozy with the industry it regulated.
The NRC policies and actions that contributed to Millstone's problems did not happen on Jackson's watch. But she was responsible for what followed.
Four years later, Jackson -- the first black woman to earn a doctorate in physics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- has stepped down as chairman of the politically charged NRC to return to academia.
This week, she takes over as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Commission member Greta Dicus succeeds Jackson as the new NRC chairman.
It took Northeast Utilities more than two years to get Millstone 3 restarted, and more than three years to do the same for Millstone 2. The company decided to mothball Millstone 1.
NU replaced virtually all of its nuclear and senior management responsible for the failures that led to Millstone's extended shutdown. The costs reached nearly $2 billion, and brought the company precariously close to financial ruin.
But what changes were made in the NRC to prevent another Millstone? And what success has Jackson had in restoring the tarnished credibility of the agency entrusted with protecting the health and safety of the public and nuclear workers?
Many of those who try to influence NRC policies and procedures say progress has been made, but that the NRC is still a long way from where it needs to be, particularly in restoring public trust.
"She was trying to instill some confidence back into a commission that desperately needed it," said James Riccio of Public Citizens' Critical Mass Energy Project. "Has she been successful? Only to a certain extent."
Riccio and other advocates credit Jackson with shaking up the agency, discarding old policies and replacing senior staff members, but they say the momentum has slowed, and that the industry still often holds sway.
Paul M. Blanch, a former NU whistle-blower who now works for the company as a consultant, said that, like a large battleship, "it is very difficult for the NRC to change its course."
Jackson says the process of change is still under way. She agrees that the Millstone crisis -- which became national news when two whistle-blowers appeared on the cover of Time magazine in March 1996 -- played a critical part in her tenure.
"I think the way we worked our way through it has helped us all come out better for it," Jackson said. "I know people in Connecticut and the vicinity of the plants may not be 100 percent pleased with everything that has happened, but there is no perfection in life."
She said the commission's actions made both the agency and the company stronger. In the aftermath of Millstone, the NRC has tried to make its oversight less subjective and more open to public scrutiny.
Still, Jackson gets mixed reviews as a reformer. New attitudes and new procedures have come slowly and, sometimes, grudgingly from the NRC staff.
Ernest Hadley, a Wareham, Mass., lawyer who has represented a number of nuclear whistle-blowers, believes little has changed in the agency he battled for 10 years, and he has harsh criticism of Jackson.
Hadley represented George Galatis, a former senior mechanical engineer at NU who publicized licensing and safety issues at Millstone 1, and argued that NU deliberately disregarded its operating license, in violation of federal law.
Galatis also petitioned the NRC to revoke NU's license to operate the reactor. The NRC has yet to rule on the petition.
In 1996, Galatis told his story to Time, drawing public and congressional scrutiny to the NRC. Galatis since has left NU and the nuclear industry, and Hadley has largely given up his whistle-blower practice.
"She did everything she could to sweep it all under the rug," Hadley said of Jackson and the agency's handling of the allegations. "Everything that was done (against NU) was done because the agency had no choice. The public pressure was so great."
David Lochbaum, who tracks the nuclear industry for the Union of Concerned Scientists, also has been a persistent agency critic, but he said Jackson must get credit for pushing the NRC toward more effective regulation.
"The direction she had the agency going was generally consistent with the positions we had," Lochbaum said. "If anything, we would fault the speed down the pathway, but we supported the pathway."
Groups such as Lochbaum's and Riccio's had been skeptical of Jackson. She had served on the board of a New Jersey utility that had a string of problems with its nuclear reactors.
During her NRC tenure, though, Jackson did earn considerable respect -- from the industry, among the watchdogs and on Capitol Hill. A nuclear physicist by training, she is extremely intelligent, a quick study of complex engineering issues and cool under fire.
But Lochbaum and Riccio said the agency started to backslide last summer when key senators threatened to cut the NRC's budget, in part because its oversight was seen as too burdensome on the industry.
At one Senate hearing in July 1998, it seemed as if the crises at Millstone had not happened; senators quizzed the NRC commissioners on ways to speed the license approval process and reduce the burden on nuclear utilities.
Jackson called Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., asking for help persuading his colleagues not to force any cutbacks, the senator recalled.
"Ironically, the industry began to feel she was being too tough," Lieberman recalled. "I had a concern at one point her budget was being squeezed for that reason."
Lieberman had been impressed by Jackson's handling of the situation at Millstone and the changes she was trying to make at the agency. He made his views known.
"My argument was, we are not going to sustain public confidence in nuclear power if the NRC gets its budget cut back so much it can't be the cop on the nuclear beat," Lieberman said.
In the end, the deep cuts didn't come.
But it was a turning point, Lochbaum said. "Since then, the agency has seemed to abandon some moves, and gone back to whatever it takes to make the industry and Congress happy," he said.
Jackson says that's not so.
"I'm not sure on what basis they feel they have seen backsliding," Jackson said. "I don't think we are being any harder or easier on our licensees as a consequence of what happened with the Senate."
Instead, she said, a number of reforms -- under way before the renewed congressional scrutiny -- have been put into place, reforms that she said are aimed at making the agency's decision-making better informed and objective.
Ralph Beedle, senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade organization based in Washington representing the nuclear industry, believes Jackson and the NRC overreacted to Millstone.
"They probably went a little farther than they needed to, but I think that was probably what the public was demanding," Beadle said.
The agency now is "on a far more stable course," Beadle said. He praised Jackson's progress in moving to more objective standards for measuring plant performance.
That kind of praise from the industry worries the likes of Hadley, who said the agency still can't get it right regarding Millstone.
In May, five years after Galatis first alerted the NRC to the safety issues, the agency cited NU for four license violations, but imposed no fine. The statute of limitations on civil violations had expired, the agency said, and NU had previously paid $2.1 million -- the biggest civil penalty ever imposed by the NRC -- for the mismanagement at Millstone.
Hadley said the failure to further punish NU sent the wrong message to other nuclear plant operators.
"They got caught with their hands in the cookie jar," he said. "What's the punishment for that? A few faces have changed, but did they bar anyone responsible from working in the industry? No.
"George Galatis paid with his career," Hadley continued. "A whole line of whistle-blowers paid with their careers."
Other critics agree that the enforcement actions the NRC has taken are still inconsistent, and often fail to follow stated policies.
Jackson defends her staff, saying reasonable people can come to different decisions on enforcement issues. But she has learned during her tenure that public perceptions of nuclear power depend on the performance of the problem plants.
"Nuclear power, in many ways, is only as strong as its weakest link," Jackson said. "This is an industry that is unforgiving. Therefore, excellence has to be the coin of the realm."