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Unclear vacancy at top of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commision,

Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commision, left, talks with protesters outside the gate of the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, in Westchester County. Jaczko took a tour of the nuclear power plant then stopped to talk with protesters concerned over the safety of the facility. (May 10, 2011) Credit: AP

The resignation of Gregory Jaczko as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a mixed blessing for the nuclear industry. It’s good because plant operators would  just as soon see him gone, but it's bad because he’s not really leaving until his successor is nominated. In a presidential election year, that’s one button that President Barack Obama is unlikely to push, though he should.

Obama favors nuclear power, and Republicans do, too. As a result, that has been a non-issue in the presidential campaign. But the nomination of a Jaczko replacement could raise a confirmation ruckus, and that’s something the president is likely to feel he doesn’t need.

For now, and probably through November and beyond, the resigned Jaczko is still in charge, but still at odds with the other four members of the commission. In the aftermath of last year’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan, Jaczko was pushing for a serious rethinking of the safety protections in place in this country. The industry was not as interested in that as he was. Nor, it appears, were the other four commissioners. In fact, his was the only nay vote when the other four voted in February to approve two new reactors in Georgia.

Newsday's editorial page has acknowledged the political reality that nuclear is likely to remain part of the energy mix in this country for years to come. But we could use a greater sense of urgency from the NRC about putting into effect the recommendations that came from its post-Fukushima task force, and Congress needs to find a politically and scientifically acceptable solution to the problem of how to store spent fuel safely.

For now, whether it causes complications for his campaign or not, it would be helpful if Obama came up with a high-quality nominee to replace Jaczko — before November. This is an important job, and the president  should not make us wait until after the election to tell us how he plans to fill it.

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