WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gregory Jaczko, top cop for the U.S. nuclear industry, began his career in Washington as a young physicist assisting efforts to block a proposal to store radioactive waste in a Nevada mountainside.
A dozen years later, Jaczko will need to draw on both scientific and political smarts while dissecting Japan's nuclear disaster to determine if changes are needed to keep the 104 U.S. nuclear power plants running safely.
That could make some nuclear operators sweat. But former colleagues and friends of the 40-year-old chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission contend he is not out quash the sector's hopes of emerging from a three-decade slump.
It will be no easy feat as radiation leaks from the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima plant, threatening the health and livelihoods of thousands of people on the country's northeastern coast.
"Part of the risk that the industry runs right now is losing their social license to operate, losing the trust of the American people," said Kai Anderson, who worked with Jaczko in the office of Sen. Harry Reid, who championed efforts to kill the Yucca Mountain, Nevada waste storage site.
"If you've got someone like Greg who is independent, who is, when necessary and appropriate, a critic of the industry, and who very likely is a tough regulator -- that's how you build confidence. That's how you get that license to operate."
CHOSE PUBLIC SERVICE OVER PRIVATE SECTOR
Jaczko was a "socially conscious" student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said his thesis advisor Loyal Durand.
Most theoretical physics grads seek research work in the network of U.S. national laboratories, or in the better-paid private sector. Wall Street actively recruits them for their mathematical modeling expertise, said Durand.
But Jaczko was different. He thought about pursuing environmental law, Durand said, but then got a fellowship to put his PhD to work in Congress.
He first worked for Edward Markey, a Democratic congressman and a vociferous nuclear critic. Later, he was a top aide to Reid, who led efforts to kill the Yucca dump.
On Capitol Hill, Jaczko was known for his tireless work on complex, technical files. He was quiet, somewhat introverted, but a pragmatist who excelled at persuading "difficult people" to come to an agreement, said his former colleague Anderson.
"He's one of the people who tell the boss what they need to hear, regardless of how uncomfortable that might be," said Anderson, now executive vice-president at Cassidy and Associates, a lobby firm.
Reid went to bat to get Jaczko named to the NRC in 2005, holding up about 175 other political appointments from then-President George W. Bush until he had a deal.
Republicans resisted the appointment, saying Jaczko was opposed to the nuclear industry.
"I thought that was a sort of specious argument," Durand said, explaining Jaczko has been trained to be open-minded.
"My feeling was, here was somebody who was very good at looking at problems objectively, and would be able to look at the evidence, look at the data, draw his own conclusions," Durand said.
YUCCA MOUNTAIN LOOMS
Since Fukushima became a household word, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have zeroed in on the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, which stays radioactive for hundreds of years.
Most U.S. waste is stored in pools, similar to the kind that are believed to have leaked radiation at the Japanese plant after the March 11 tsunami severed its power.
At hearings last week, Jaczko emphasized waste can be safety stored in pools for 100 years -- an argument that didn't seem to convince Democratic lawmakers.
The Obama administration first moved in 2009 to kill plans to store waste at Yucca Mountain, a decision being fought in court by utilities, with a "blue ribbon" panel of experts pondering alternatives.
Last week, Republicans attacked Jaczko on his role in ending the NRC's technical review of the project, launching a formal probe of his actions.
"The Chairman has made decisions unilaterally that I don't think he has the authority to make," Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho told reporters last week after a hearing where he grilled Jaczko for more than 30 minutes on the issue.
"I think they're making political decisions," said Simpson, chair of a committee that oversees the NRC's budget.
Jaczko defended his actions as "apolitical" and said it was not up to the NRC as a licensing body for waste storage to require the government to pursue the Yucca project.
WILL REVIEW MEAN DELAY?
Jaczko was only eight years old at the time of the nation's worst-ever nuclear power accident, a meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania.
The accident prompted an overhaul of safety regulations and stalled new plant development for 30 years. Before Fukushima, Congress, the Obama administration and the nuclear industry had sought to turn that trend around.
Jaczko, who declined to be interviewed, has said many times he does not have a personal opinion on nuclear power.
"As a citizen, I would like to see nuclear power that is safe and secure, and that's fundamentally my job as chairman," he said at a hearing last week when asked by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham if he would like to see more nuclear power.
The NRC will face pressure from Congress to let the industry advance, said Peter Bradford, who was an NRC commissioner at the time of Three Mile Island.
"It's a pretty constant drumbeat, and has been for many years," he said.
Jaczko will be judged on how a two-stage review of the industry unfolds. An internal task force on the Japan accident will report to the NRC on July 19, and a longer six-month review will involve input from industry and the public.
Some worry the review will lead to a formal pause on licenses for new plants, which could set back financing.
"The reaction on Wall Street would be, 'Well, there you go, it's just like the NRC in the '80s in the wake of Three Mile Island,' where all of a sudden, we're just going to see delays, delays, delays," a congressional aide said.
The NRC will be watched closely to see whether it requires new safety standards for highly improbable events, said former Republican Senator Pete Domenici, a long-time champion for nuclear power.
"They're going to have to decide, 'What does this accident ask and demand of us?' and then proceed to do what is required, on the safety side, and that's going to be a big undertaking," said Domenici, now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
"They're going to end up being much bigger players in where nuclear power goes for America than we ever thought," he said.