Gregory Jaczko

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ORAL HISTORIES

Courtesy of Gregory Jaczko, credit unknown.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Location
Washington, D.C.
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Interview of Gregory Jaczko by David Zierler on January 14, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/44083

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Abstract

In this interview with Gregory Jaczko, the former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Jazcko recounts his childhood and early interests in the sciences, his physics education at Cornell and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his entrance into the political world as a science adviser to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. The bulk of the interview focuses on Jazcko' tenure as Chairman of the NRC during the first Obama administration, with particular emphasis on Jazcko's attempt to limit the nuclear industry's sway over civilian nuclear safety policy.

Transcript

Zierler:

This is David Zierler, Oral Historian for American Institute of Physics. It’s Tuesday, January 14, and it’s my great pleasure to be with —

Jaczko:

Gregory Jaczko.

Zierler:

Would you spell that?

Jaczko:

It’s G-R-E-G-O-R-Y, and J-A-C-Z-K-O.

Zierler:

I bet you get asked that all the time, right?

Jaczko:

I do. [laughs]

Zierler:

What’s the ethnic origin of the name?

Jaczko:

It’s my father’s. [laughs] I don’t know. Nobody really knows. He grew up — he was born in Romania, but he was of German heritage, and the name is neither Romanian nor German.

Zierler:

It’s a unique name for certain.

Jaczko:

It is a unique name. It is. It’s one of those — there really are very few, but I think — I did look it up on Google at one point to try and get the origin, and it has, according to Google or some Google website, it is Belorussian of origin. So, you know, how that eventually came to where my father — like I said, my father was born in Romania, but his parents were both Viennese Austrian descent, and I think both born in Vienna. And so, you know, it’s some kind of middle European name, but it’s not a name of his ethnic origin, really.

Zierler:

Interesting. Well, it’s the name you’ve got. [laughs]

Jaczko:

Exactly, yeah. It’s a good one. I like it. [laughs]

Zierler:

That’s a great segue. We’re just going to start right at the beginning, your early life. You were born in Albany. How long —

Jaczko:

Born in Philadelphia, outside of Philadelphia.

Zierler:

Another detail online that —

Jaczko:

Oh, gosh. I’ll have to check.

Zierler:

So, you were born in Philadelphia.

Jaczko:

Yes.

Zierler:

And then you go to Albany?

Jaczko:

No. Then — it’s funny, because I just went through this with my wife. We went to Vermont for Christmas to ski, and we drove up there, and we drove through Albany, then we drove through Glens Falls, so it was kind of my child — I went from — well, I went from Philadelphia to Glens Falls to Syracuse to Albany, and then most of my childhood in Albany.

Zierler:

Most of your childhood in Albany.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Then Norristown was the next one?

Jaczko:

Which is where I was born. Correct.

Zierler:

Born in Norristown. Okay.

Jaczko:

Which is outside of Philadelphia. It’s a suburb of Philadelphia, so that’s why I usually say I was born in Philadelphia. Norristown.

Zierler:

Your parents, your father, was born in Romania. When did he come here?

Jaczko:

He came here — he came here twice, so he came here in the ’60s to go to college, and he met my mom, and then he was living in Venezuela at the time, because — his life story is far more interesting than mine. [laughs] In the ’50s, his family immigrated from Europe to Venezuela, with the promises of jobs and all those things. Which, of course, when they arrive in Venezuela, didn’t materialize, but eventually his family found work, and then they lived in Venezuela.

Zierler:

Were there a wave of central European immigrants to Venezuela?

Jaczko:

There were a wave of it to many parts of South America. His came in the ’50s. When I grew up, the story he always told was that he had been born in Romania, lived in Hungary. Mostly, his childhood was during World War II, but he associated himself with southern Germany, a small town called Mittenwald, which is in the Bavarian Alps, close to Munich, close to Garmisch. And he lived there for a time after the war. And I didn’t realize until he explained it more, but they were basically refugees. So, we went to visit. It was only recently we went, about 10 years ago, as a family. He’s now passed away. But with my sister and my parents, we went, and he kind of really explained to us what his childhood had been like, and where he had lived. They were displaced. First, they were displaced persons from the war. I had always thought that they were just — they were able to take their German heritage and then resettle in Germany, and I just assumed that they were essentially treated as German citizens, but they weren’t. They were actually in and out of a displaced persons camp in southern Germany, and then eventually, in the ’50s then, they moved to South America. So, kind of a very different life and childhood than what I experienced.

Zierler:

What was your father’s mother tongue? He had many, it sounds like.

Jaczko:

He had many, mostly Hungarian. His mother spoke Hungarian to him. Well, they spoke their own language, which was a mixture of German, Hungarian, some Romanian, although he didn’t often speak Romanian. Spanish, and then he spoke English. I mean, he spoke multiple languages.

Zierler:

So, he comes with his family in the ’50s to Venezuela.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

And then he goes back to Europe.

Jaczko:

No, then he stayed in Venezuela, came to the U.S. to go to school. He met my mom. They moved back to Venezuela. So, she was born in America, Ohio.

Zierler:

What college – where did they go to school?

Jaczko:

St. Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri. My dad actually went to — what was it called — Parks School of Aviation, which I think still exists, which was, I think, affiliated with St. Louis University or however it works. He got an aeromechanical engineering degree. My mom got a degree in history. They went to Venezuela — back to Venezuela, which is where his family was. He had a job. He worked for Shell Oil Company, Royal Dutch Shell in Maracaibo, which is the main oil-producing region of Venezuela. He lived there, then my mom had enough of Venezuela. [laughs] And my sister was born there. She’s a year older than me. Then, when my mom was pregnant with me, they came back here to the U.S.

Zierler:

Okay, so you just got that citizenship, just like that.

Jaczko:

I did. My sister, she had both, so they’ve registered her with the embassy. So, she was born an American citizen in Venezuela, and in principle, had dual citizenship. Then, they came here, stayed with some friends, actually, outside of D.C., in Arlington — who they knew in Venezuela, another American family that also worked at Shell, and then came here, stayed with them for six months, and then my dad found work in Philadelphia. So, then they moved to Philadelphia, and that’s where I was born.

Zierler:

Born in Norristown.

Jaczko:

Yeah, born in Norristown.

Zierler:

Then at what age did you move to Albany?

Jaczko:

I think I was about 9, as we moved about every three years for the first nine years of my life.

Zierler:

Alright, so from 3 to 6, you were in Albany?

Jaczko:

Yeah. I guess 3 to 5 I was in Glens Falls, and then we moved to Syracuse for three years, and then to Albany.

Zierler:

And is your father working in the oil industry?

Jaczko:

No. He was an industrial engineer, so he was working primarily — he started out — his first employment was with Philco, which was an old company that actually got bought out and became Zenith. Then in Glens Falls, he was working in the textile industry, and then in Syracuse, he worked for a company called Norton. Which, that was my favorite, because during that time, they were the sponsors of — I think it was A.J. Foyt, or one of the Foyts’, Indy cars. I think if you go back and look at that era — so it would have been the ’70s, or maybe early ’80s, I guess, you know — ‘70s, yeah. They were winning all the Indy 500s, and there’s a big — you know, the car — Norton was the prime sponsor on the car.

Zierler:

Wow.

Jaczko:

He worked in their — I can’t remember what division he was in, but I think they made brake pads and different car components, among other things, and so they were a big sponsor of the Indy cars. And they were winning, you know, the Indy 500 at that time, so I remember that fondly. So, that was where he worked in Syracuse. You know, his was a tale, in many ways, of kind of what I call just the decline of manufacturing in New York state.

Zierler:

Sure. I’m born and raised in Utica, so…

Jaczko:

Oh, you are? Okay, great. Yeah.

Zierler:

…I know the story well.

Jaczko:

Yeah. So, you know, factories would close, and he could stay with the company and move to the south, which is where a lot of manufacturing is going, and he didn’t want to do that. Looking back, I think probably the reason — which, of course, at that age, he didn’t really explain — was because of prejudice, and probably feeling more comfortable in the northeast than moving to the south, where he was a —

Zierler:

Prejudice, because he spoke with an accent?

Jaczko:

Yeah. You know, this was the ’70s. Things were not as —

Zierler:

They didn’t look like they do today. [laughs]

Jaczko:

No, they don’t. You know, that was always a challenge for him. I didn’t appreciate that until probably later in life. But, I’ll tell you a funny story I always tell people, that it was very interesting, because he had a very, very strong accent — what accent there was. As we said, it’s kind of a mixture of all kinds of European things, but I never grew up hearing it.

Zierler:

Sure.

Jaczko:

I think that’s fairly common, because you’re used to that language. Whatever reason, you don’t hear that as in any way different. I had a friend in —

Zierler:

You spoke in English with your father.

Jaczko:

Yeah, he spoke English to me, which I have always regretted. We always — my sister and I wished he had spoken one of the many languages that he spoke. But I had a friend who called once, and my dad answered the phone. And I got on the phone with my friend. They said, “Who’s that strange guy visiting you?” I said, “What do you mean?” [laughs] He said, “Well, he’s got a really strong accent.” And that was the first time I realized.

Zierler:

“Really? That’s my dad.”

Jaczko:

Right. Exactly. That was my dad. He has this thick accent. I played soccer growing up, and our soccer coach was German as well, and he had a thick accent. And now I realize, my dad’s was the same as his, but I just never heard it. I never recognized that as his accent. So that’s kind of the history of where we moved around a bit. But then kind of from fourth grade on through high school, I was in Albany.

Zierler:

You’re back in Albany.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

So, in high school, junior high, were you sort of already on the math and science track at that point?

Jaczko:

Yeah, I was. Definitely math and science, physics. I mean, I liked physics. I think I liked it because it was challenging. It probably wasn’t the thing that I was best at. [laughs] But, it was a thing that I gravitated towards because of the challenge. Yeah, and I think kind of stuck with it all the way to graduate school, and then kind of moved away from it a little bit.

Zierler:

Right. And then next stop is Cornell.

Jaczko:

Yes. Well, I went and I did a year first at SUNY-Binghamton and then transferred into Cornell and graduated undergraduate at Cornell.

Zierler:

And you did physics undergraduate at Cornell?

Jaczko:

I did do physics — yes, I was a double major in physics and philosophy at Cornell.

Zierler:

Oh, a lot of deep thoughts there.

Jaczko:

Yeah. I was probably better at philosophy than I was at physics. [laughs] But once again, I found the challenge of physics more enticing than what I thought was the easier thing of philosophy. Which, looking back, probably tells me something. It’s probably that it was easier because I was probably better at it. [laughs]

Zierler:

Well, the thing that jumps out at me there, of course, is that your ultimate trajectory in public policy — so I wonder, in undergraduate, if you were also thinking along political lines in terms of social and cultural lines, or not yet at this point?

Jaczko:

That really happened in graduate school more than as an undergrad. When I was an undergraduate, I was still looking at a traditional academic career. I was going to go to graduate school in physics. I was going to get a —

Zierler:

So, that was determined already in Cornell, that you were going to pursue the Ph.D. in physics.

Jaczko:

Yeah. Exactly, yeah. That was the plan. I intended to study and continue studying as long as I could.

Zierler:

Any internships outside of Ithaca during this time?

Jaczko:

I did not. Not outside of Ithaca, but I did spend a summer in Ithaca working. They have the particle accelerator at Ithaca.

Zierler:

Oh, yeah. Right.

Jaczko:

So, I spent a summer working on there. I had — so, I did a year abroad. My junior year I did abroad in Germany and then came back my senior year. Because I had been away, I did an extra half a semester, because when I was in Germany, [laughs] I probably didn’t take as many credits as I should have.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Jaczko:

So, I came back, and then I spent the summer — which would have been basically after what was my senior year — I spent that summer working at the particle accelerator in Cornell, then finished up the following semester in — then after that, I graduated in January, and then I spent the next six months — I went back to Germany and worked at the particle accelerator facility in Germany and then came back to go to graduate school.

Zierler:

One thing I’m always curious about, particularly — you know, you’re an undergraduate, physics, Cornell. World-class physics department. How much, as an undergraduate, did you get to experience the genius of the professors? How well did they share their time with — forgive me, but — a lowly undergraduate? Right? How was your experience in that regard?

Jaczko:

You know, it’s funny. I think some of that is a function of the student, and some of it is the function of the faculty. I was just — I was a very reserved person, so I probably didn’t engage with the faculty as much as I should have.

Zierler:

Or, you had the opportunities to, you’re saying.

Jaczko:

I certainly had the opportunities. Now, I did — when I did — so, I did do undergraduate research, and it was a professor that I had had, David Rubin. He was a great guy, and he taught a particle physics class. He was also — his job — he was one of the particle accelerator physicists, so not doing the science of what happens when you do the experiments, but the science of how you make the machines — and what was called accelerator physicist. I talked to him. I told him I was really interested, and as part of the class, he took us on a tour of the accelerator. And it was interesting, and I had a good relationship with him, so I was able to work out an arrangement with him to do undergraduate research. And it was great. I mean, I enjoyed that, and I had a pretty open-ended project to basically develop a computer program to simulate the accelerator. I worked alongside some of the graduate students and got a feel for that. So, that was probably, in a way, the closest relationship I had. There was one other professor who I remember very well. This was when I took a — which, I always, in hindsight, look back and didn’t probably completely realize who I was dealing with. I think his name was Lee. I took — this was an experimental class, a lab class, and it was still one of the coolest things I ever did. A part of that is I built a laser and was able to do some really interesting measurements of essentially laser — the patterns that you could form — the light patterns were the exactly a particular set of equations, and so you could project these images, which were the different nodes of this particular equation. And it was a very painstaking process to get this particular — this simplistic laser, but to get it to work was not a simple matter. And it was one of the most fun things I did as an undergraduate. The professor who was teaching that class was this particular professor, and his background was in condensed matter physics. And so, you know, he loved it because he kind of said, “This is something somebody could do if they want to,” and I latched onto it and did it. It was when we had three or four different stations of things you had to do as part of the class, and I remember just going into this darkroom. And I loved it. I would go into this darkroom, and I’d fiddle with these mirrors and work to get the alignment right. Every time I went, you’d have to fine-tune these mirrors to get the right resonance, to get the beam to get these images projected. And I remember once, he told me — he came in apologetically in between — you know, we met once a week, or whatever it was. He said one of his graduate students had come in to look at the setup, and they messed it up. And he was really sorry, you know, all these things. Then he would up winning the Nobel Prize, so — for work that he obviously had done years prior, but I didn’t quite realize that that’s who I was dealing with at the time, and I remember seeing that when I got into graduate school. And I realized — oh, and he was one of the people that I had write recommendations for me for graduate school. But it didn’t resonate with me in that way, that this was, you know — well, it was partially because my interest was mostly in particle physics, and he was not a particle physicist.

Zierler:

Part of it is, you know, you’re 20 years old. [laughs]

Jaczko:

Right. Exactly, and so you’re not — I wasn’t that into the physics, per se, that I realized that here was really, really prominent researcher who inspired me, because I would go, and he’d come in, and he’d be excited about what I was able to do. And I mean, I literally — I’m looking at the screen, because — I remember this — and you would just see this pattern, and you know, I can’t remember what function it was. But it was literally the physical manifestation of this function on the screen, because this was the particular pattern that the laser would project. And you would tune it, and you’d get the different phases of this particular function.

Zierler:

Which demonstrates what to you? What’s the value in the end of this?

Jaczko:

It’s that physical manifestation of the mathematics, how nature follows these particular rules. Here was a specific visual representation of that.

Zierler:

Right. You’re not on the chalkboard. It’s really — it’s happening.

Jaczko:

Exactly. Exactly. So, the laser would resonate, and when it resonated, it would resonate with these particular patterns, and you could actually see that pattern. To me — now, I never wound up again being an experimentalist, largely because that came easier to me than theory, and I kind of look back and I think, [laughs] Okay, maybe I should have — maybe I shouldn’t have taken the hard path all the time and just done the thing that was a little bit easier. And you know, I remember — so, he had graduated from Yale. That’s where he got his Ph.D. And I asked him to write a recommendation and things like that. Like I said, some of it was just me. I was just a very reserved person. I didn’t really engage. I didn’t seek a lot of advice from professors about where I should apply in a graduate school, and all those kinds of things. And I remember I had not intended to apply to Yale, and I got an application in the mail from Yale. And I had no idea why. I didn’t apply, [laughs] largely because I wanted to do particle physics, and that was not necessarily a place that had a significant particle physics program.

Zierler:

So, you knew, even from the undergraduate, that you were headed to particle physics.

Jaczko:

Yeah. That was —

Zierler:

Because of this work, basically.

Jaczko:

Yeah, because of that actually —

Zierler:

The connection to Professor Rubin.

Jaczko:

Exactly, because of that class. Although, the work he did wasn’t experiment — it wasn’t the experimental physics work. It was the machine-building, but I was interested in that part of particle physics, and I think the reason I got that application was because of this professor, because I remember talking to him about it, and he said, “Where are you thinking of applying?” And I mentioned where I was, and all those things. But like I said, it just kind of came in the mail unsolicited, and it wasn’t on my list of things, and so I never bothered to apply. [laughs] Which, was just kind of a disconnect that I had, in many ways, with what was really going on there.

Zierler:

From your vantage point, you know, the undergraduate experience, how did you understand the state of the field of particle physics at that point? Were you excited, like, there was so much more to learn about in this field? What were the things that were exciting to you about that?

Jaczko:

Yeah, it really was. I mean, at that time, this was ’94. Experimental particle physics, in the theoretical side, was really on the cusp of very, very significant discoveries — at that point had measured, I think at that point, five of the six quarks. Top quark was still missing. But it was really where — in my mind, it was the cutting-edge science in the field of physics. Again, it was the thing that was kind of the most attractive, in a way, the sexiest piece of the profession, or the field. You also had, at that time — and this is probably my first two science policy interfaces that I remember in my childhood. This was one of them, and this was around when I was in — I’m pretty sure it was my senior year, and I’m pretty sure it was Professor Rubin who, in class, mentioned that at that time, the U.S. government was debating the Superconducting Super Collider, and I’m pretty sure it was him who mentioned it in class and said, “We’re worried about funding for this project. It is a very significant project for the future of particle physics,” and he was an accelerator physicist, so he designed particle acceleration. I’m sure he had a role, and Cornell most likely had a role, in developing the SSC. It was such a big project that I’m sure they had a significant role. And that was one of the first times I remember seeing how these two things interfaced, and how science was dependent on this political process. And the other one was when I was in high school or middle school — it was high school. There was a new mall that was proposed to be built in Albany. I can’t remember the name. “Shopping Gate,” or something like “Shopping Town,” or something like that. A new mall. And that mall was located — was going to be built in a small area of Albany that had one of two habitats for an endangered butterfly, who was the — I remember this — but I think it was such a profound event in my life. I remember this. It was the Karner blue butterfly. How and why I remember that — but I do, and I’m pretty sure that’s correct. Maybe I have it wrong, but at least, I believe it was the Karner blue butterfly. And I had a biology teacher. I think it was — Mrs. Quackenbush was her name, who talked about this, and she talked about protesting it, and talked about — they were trying to fight this shopping mall, because there were only two habitats for this Karner blue butterfly. They lived in what they call — it was some — I can’t remember the full name, but it was called the “Pine Bush,” and the only other area was in New Jersey, I think. Again, I’m pretty sure that’s correct. So, it needed a particular type of soil, but it was a very particular type of pine tree. It grew in this small area in Albany, and I think in New Jersey, as I remember. And of course, what do they do? They built a mall.

Zierler:

Of course.

Jaczko:

And if you go to that mall, at least I think it’s still there, they have a little display about the Karner blue butterfly. [laughs] But, like those were two times when I vividly remember this kind of interface with science and policy, government, and you know, how those things come together.

Zierler:

And what about coming from the other side? Obviously, when you get to public policy to support the research. What about your appreciation of making the case from the scientific side, that this is something that deserves the funding? Were you thinking along those lines as well, at that point?

Jaczko:

You know, not so much at that point, but I always valued science and always thought it was important. And certainly, as I went into graduate school — again, even as I went into graduate school, my goal was a Ph.D. and then an academic career.

Zierler:

Right. Right.

Jaczko:

And I wasn’t too aware. You know, I was a graduate student in physics. Relative to graduate students in history and other disciplines, we were very well supported and very well funded. You know, I had a full — I had a stipend. I wasn’t buying a luxury vehicle, but I could pay all of my expenses and have a fun life as a graduate student, and I didn’t have to take out a single loan. So physics was, in that regard, very different than other disciplines.

Zierler:

Sure — the humanities.

Jaczko:

The humanities. Exactly. In that sense, I wasn’t really confronted with some of the challenges of funding and the need for funding, you know, despite this experience with the SSC and that being cancelled. You know, there were still plenty of things going on in particle physics, you know, with — CERN was active, very active at that time. Fermilab was still engaged heavily in a lot of research. At that time, there was a battle for —what’d they call it — the B-Factory between Cornell and SLAC. That was a big debate at that time. And again, there was a piece — I can’t remember if that — that was probably happening — that happened after I started graduate school, but you know, clearly there was a situation in which — I started to — I can’t remember when that decision went down, but Cornell was the optimal facility for that, but did not have the political representation, nor did they have the right funding organization to successfully win that. And ultimately, I think that project was awarded to SLAC and the accelerator there rather than Cornell.

Zierler:

So, this transition from undergraduate to graduate, just in terms of how you saw yourself working on these projects — did you see yourself as an elite in the undergraduate physics department? Were you somebody who you thought of, like: I’m not just somebody who’s, you know, sort of moving along to get my — you saw yourself in bigger terms at that stage?

Jaczko:

No.

Zierler:

You don’t have to be humble. I mean, I’m just curious.

Jaczko:

No, I definitely saw myself as just somebody just kind of moving along.

Zierler:

Oh, really?

Jaczko:

And, yeah.

Zierler:

Okay.

Jaczko:

Yeah, and I mean, I was a good physicist. I was never a great physicist. Or, I should say, I probably didn’t pursue the part of physics that I was best at.

Zierler:

Which is?

Jaczko:

More of the experimental side.

Zierler:

The theoretical. Okay.

Jaczko:

Yeah. Although, in graduate school, I think that changed a little bit, but certainly, like I said, as an undergraduate, this laser experience, this was a thing where —

Zierler:

So, you locked into it. Right.

Jaczko:

Yeah, and that was probably a piece in which I really excelled above others in my class, but I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

Zierler:

Right. So, in this little corner of physics, you were doing things that you saw in really big terms.

Jaczko:

Yeah. And in my undergraduate research, it wasn’t until I got to graduate school and learned more about what I had done in my undergraduate research that I realized that, you know, I had been doing work that was quality work. And I went and did — I spent a year — I spent six months in Germany doing, again, more experimental-type work. I mean, this was all really experimental work, in many ways. And then I did a project in Germany, which again, was seen as being good quality work. But you know, I didn’t necessarily look at it that way and see it that way.

Zierler:

And what were the range of graduate schools on your menu? Not Yale.

Jaczko:

Because I don’t even remember — no, not Yale. Gosh, I don’t know.

Zierler:

Was staying at Cornell an option?

Jaczko:

No. Cornell really discouraged that. They did not —

Zierler:

It’s like, too much inbreeding kind of thing?

Jaczko:

Yeah. They really — you had to really, I think, have excelled as a graduate student — or as an undergrad there — to be able to even consider that. But they actively discouraged — I did not apply to Yale — I mean, to Cornell. Gosh. I don’t remember. I applied to Champaign-Urbana. I applied to Harvard. I didn’t get in. I applied to Wisconsin, which was, in a way, my safety school. And that’s where I got in. I got in there. I got into Urbana, I think, and chose Wisconsin, because it seemed like a nicer place to live. [laughs] So, I was good. I was not great.

Zierler:

In choosing a physics program as an entering graduate student, is it more about the subfield than it is about working with a particular professor, or is it a combination of both? Did you know who you wanted to work with at Wisconsin, or that really isn’t how it worked?

Jaczko:

No. I just — again, I was not that —

Zierler:

That’s more about you, you’re saying, in a way. Okay.

Jaczko:

Yeah, that’s more about me. I was not that focused on those things. I mean, I looked at the schools. I think I talked to — I probably talked to — I had an advisor at Cornell, who I’d talked to maybe one time, you know, maybe when I joined the major, and then when I was applying to graduate school. Like I said, I — so, I transferred to Cornell, and I had a rough start, and I remember actually, my — technically my advisor told me — my official advisor said I might want to not consider graduate school, because I probably wouldn’t get in anyway, which turned out not to be the case. I didn’t put that much thought into it, and as I remember, I mean, I applied to a number of schools. I honestly can’t even tell you what schools I applied to.

Zierler:

But Wisconsin was definitely one place to excel in particle physics.

Jaczko:

Yeah, absolutely. In many ways, it was the place. The work that they were doing there was probably the most productive of any experimental work being done by any U.S. institution at CERN.

Zierler:

Oh, wow. Okay.

Jaczko:

So, it turned out to be — I mean, that’s another interesting story. [laughs]

Zierler:

Please. That’s what we’re here for.

Jaczko:

When I got to Wisconsin — so then, you know, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and then I met probably the best professor I’ve ever had in my life — in any field in any subject — was Randy Durand, who wound up becoming my thesis advisor. He taught most of the — gosh, I probably took four classes from him, and he was fantastic. At least for me, he taught in a way that I just really could appreciate and accept. So, after my first semester, he offered me an office, [laughs] which was again something I didn’t fully appreciate but was a big deal. I think it was after my first semester. He said, “Hey, you know, do you want to come over here and maybe consider theory? We have an office over here. You can come over here and, you know, have this as your base for your graduate school.” And so, I said, “Great,” and you know, hadn’t really thought about doing theory. Then what I determined once I got to Wisconsin, I realized that, okay, the thing to do was to go to this group at CERN that was led by Sau Lan Wu, who was a very, very prominent researcher. I mean, accomplished lots of things. Probably — you know, if you ask her, she deserves a Nobel Prize, and probably does, for work that she had done but didn’t get credit for, fully. So, she had an incredibly productive group that worked at CERN. She typically recruited students already coming into the program, but after a semester at Wisconsin, and then you were starting to look at what you could be doing for the summer, I decided I wanted to go to CERN. I was going to go to CERN and work in her group. So, I told her — I expressed my interest, and she said, “Fine.” And so, I went to CERN for the summer, doing experimental particle physics work. I actually did a really good study. Of course, I never got credit for it, because ended up not staying in the group. [laughs] But you know, I had thought before I left for that summer. Wisconsin had what they call a phenomenology group. So, somewhere in between pure particle theory and — I don’t actually know your background. You don’t have a science, physics —

Zierler:

I’m a historian of science.

Jaczko:

Okay.

Zierler:

So, I know as much as I need to. [laughs]

Jaczko:

Right. So, phenomenology was somewhere in the middle, between true theory and experiment.

Zierler:

Yeah, and that’s a moving target.

Jaczko:

It is. Exactly. And Wisconsin had a very, very good phenomenology group. So, their experimental work was very good, and they had very good people in phenomenology.

Zierler:

Were they good about talking to each other?

Jaczko:

Yeah. They were pretty good about talking to each other. Although, you know, the true experimentalists were at CERN. They had a group at Fermilab, and they had a group at CERN, but the CERN group was probably the strongest. And that was Sau Lan Wu, and she never came back. She was able to negotiate a contract that prevented her from ever having to teach. Which is great for her, because she was excellent at what she did. So, before I left, I had decided I was going to do phenomenology.

Zierler:

As a thesis project.

Jaczko:

As a thesis project, exactly. So, I’d work in that space, which was in the middle, between the theory and the experimental. I talked to the phenomenology group. They said, “That’s great. When you come back, we’ll sit down and get you an advisor. We’ll do all that. But yeah, go to CERN for the summer. Experiencing true particle experimental work will pay dividends for you as a phenomenologist — having been there, seeing the machines, done the kind of data work, done all those things, that would be great.” So, I went. I had a great summer in Geneva, worked on really, really interesting projects. I still remember this. This was at the time — so, the machine there was the LEP — it was an electron-positron collider, and they were operating what they called the Z peak. So, it was the resonance for the Z boson mass, so electrons and positrons would collide, and they would preferentially — at this particular energy — produce a lot of particles, because of the particular energies they were nearing. So then, almost all the work that had been done at CERN was at this energy level and was a very, very productive energy level. They could do tons of physics at that energy level. Well, they were — kind of exhausted a lot of that, so they were upgrading the machine. I actually did a study — because of course, you would make the machines go faster — the electrons and protons go faster — but some of them slowed down a little bit, so when these things were colliding, what you were actually — even though the overall energy was higher, a lot of what you were still getting were these collisions at the older energy, and because it was such a prodigious or productive energy level for collisions, you would get a lot of particles. But those were really the old physics. So, what you wanted to do was exclude all of those things. I did a study to look at how much of this new stuff you could expect that would really just be the old stuff. You had to filter it out, and you had to appreciate that it was there, and so, that was what I spent the summer doing, was looking at that and measuring or calculating how large that contribution to the new physics would be. I did that, produced a nice study at the end, and then I sat down — or maybe that was before I did my presentation, because Professor Wu had everybody do presentations at the end of the summer [about] what they’d been working on, and it had been going very well. And so, I had a meeting with her. This was maybe three-quarters of the way through the summer. I said, “This is what I worked on.” She said, “Great. We’re very happy with what you’re doing. We’d love to have you come back and pursue your thesis here.” And I said, “Well, I’m actually going to go back and do phenomenology work.” And as I recall, she then said to me, “Okay. Well then, you can leave.” [laughs]

Zierler:

Oops. [laughs]

Jaczko:

Which, that was Sau Lan Wu. Now, whether she said that to me, or I just felt that way, or I heard that she said that, I can’t remember.

Zierler:

Meaning, that she had no more use for you…

Jaczko:

Exactly.

Zierler:

…if that was where you were headed.

Jaczko:

Exactly. Exactly. And so, I was able — again, I don’t remember whether she told me that directly or she told the postdoc that I was working with, but either way, it got smoothed over, and I produced this work, which then turned out to be a very meaningful piece of work, because then I heard from the postdoc that I had been working with about three or four months later. They were doing a presentation. And again, this was particle physics, so it was these massive groups, although Sau Lan Wu’s group — I don’t know. It’s probably not fair to say, but maybe 80 percent of all the results that came out of this particular detector — at the time, it was the ALEPH detector — there were two main detectors: ALEPH and CMS, or something like that. Most of the prominent work was coming out of her group. You know, all the hundreds of people who were involved in the collaboration all get credit for the work, but the most profound discoveries were coming from her group. So, they were having a collaboration discussion about the new physics with the higher energy level, and people were showing some results. Then the postdoc I was working with said, “No, no, no. These are wrong. You are dramatically underestimating the value of” — it was called the Z return — “how much is coming from these particles that are — one of them is slowing down, and you’re getting these bursts of particles, and you think it’s the new level of physics, but it’s not.” He actually presented the work that I had done, and it made a significant impact on what people were saying. They had not — nobody had done an analysis yet and done it, and so, it actually made a significant contribution, although — and I think they probably published, but since I left the group…

Zierler:

It didn’t have your name on it.

Jaczko:

…I didn’t get credit. And again, nothing ever — nobody really — everything got published under the collaborations anyway, but you would differentiate the people who did the work based on 1., if they did the thesis on it, or 2., if they talked about it. So, I went and finished the summer. I had a great summer, but went back to Madison and largely had decided I just — it came down to a question of: I didn’t want to spend the next four years in Europe, and I wanted to be closer to home, and that was a lot of it. Which, again, looking back is surprising to me, because I always like living abroad and, but I just wasn’t comfortable doing that.

Zierler:

Right. On that question about Europe and Geneva, how international was the setting? In other words, when you were there, did you feel like this was like the U.N.? How broadly representative was the world, so to speak, at CERN?

Jaczko:

Yeah, it was very much a — you know, a many — international setting, with an international U.N. — science. It was a very, very multicultural place, and there were people from all over. English was the dominant language.

Zierler:

Did you detect cultural differences that permeated scientific processes?

Jaczko:

Oh, absolutely.

Zierler:

Different ways of looking at things?

Jaczko:

No, more [laughs] — the jokes were about the Europeans would go sailing on Friday afternoons, and the Americans would be working. So that was kind of —

Zierler:

So, the science was the science.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

That was a universal language. There weren’t differences in that realm.

Jaczko:

I mean, like I said, Sau Lan was notorious for her drive. And I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. She produced a tremendous amount of work in her graduate students, and she was very proud of it. She would come back —

Zierler:

And she was revered, it sounds like, too.

Jaczko:

Oh, yeah. Revered or feared. I’m not sure which. [laughs]

Zierler:

Probably a combination of both.

Jaczko:

Or, a combination of both. But she would come back to Madison one or two times a year. I think she was contractually obligated to come back to Madison. She would give a presentation, and then she would walk through every thesis from her — that had come out of her group and what postdoc that student had. I mean, she — if you worked for her, you were in a very — she would do amazing things. She worked her people hard, but it was — it’s hard to say it was work. I mean, it was enjoyable. And what you did — and you were still in Geneva — you know, it could have been a very nice life there.

Zierler:

So, it sounds like the combination of your abiding interest in phenomenology, plus that you didn’t want to — essentially was in Geneva for the next X-number of years.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

So, that brought you back to Wisconsin.

Jaczko:

Yeah, that brought me back to Madison, and so then I came back, and I went to the phenomenology folks, and I said, “Okay, I’m back now. I had a great experience. Now I need an advisor.” Then, I started talking to people, and then I wound up latching onto Francis Halzen, who was doing a fantastic experiment, which was the neutrino detector in Antarctica. This was in the very early stages. They had some testing detectors, and they were beginning to do physics with it. I was going to do the phenomenology of this, which was really interesting. There were so many interesting things to do, and so we started our project. I published one paper with him. It was on gamma-ray bursts and the ability to detect gamma-ray bursts. And yeah, I remember — this is one of those things I remember. It was one of those moments where I realize that I probably wasn’t a great physicist, because we wrote this paper about measuring gamma-ray bursts, and the idea was: these are large, very energetic bursts of gamma rays, which can be measured by gamma-ray telescopes. Concurrent with that, they were trying to see if there were neutrinos associated with those gamma-ray bursts. So, if you could measure that at the same time, and you had some directional information, you could tell that that burst of neutrinos were coming from the gamma-ray, then you could begin to get more information about what’s causing those gamma-ray bursts. So, it was a pretty interesting paper. What I did was just basically a look — we had one theoretical model that somebody had developed about what could be causing the gamma-ray bursts, and what a neutrino signature would look like. And so, I did a phenomenological small model of what we could expect to see in a detector like this in Antarctica. I remember one of the people we had look at a pre-review of the paper pointed out that one of the things we could actually do — and this was a hot topic at the time — was measure neutrino mass out of it, because if you knew the time — you knew the gamma-ray — when you saw the gamma-ray burst, and if you get a concurrent signature for the neutrinos, if they’re both massless, those signatures are going to come at the same time. If there’s a lag, that lag would tell you the mass of the neutrinos. It was just interesting to me that that was an obvious kind of insight that hadn’t occurred to me. Yeah, we put it into the paper and all of that, but I realized that — well, wait a minute. You know, that’s something I should have picked up on, that that’s something that I was doing this — but I was kind of so focused in writing the computer model and doing some of these calculations, or what the signature would look like and all this, that I didn’t see that. You know, it was one of those things where I look back, and I think: okay, that — I was good at physics. I was not great at physics, because a great physicist would have seen that and realized that, oh, wait a minute. Here’s one way you could measure neutrino masses. Of course, at that time, this was the mid-’90s. That was one of the biggest issues in particle physics at the time. “Do neutrinos have mass?”

Zierler:

Well, it’s probably — it didn’t also not just occur to you. It probably didn’t occur to your professor?

Jaczko:

Right, it didn’t. Yeah. But he had done — lots of other things had occurred to him, that that didn’t matter. [laughs] But you know, that was where I thought, I’m at the height of my physics inquiry and interest and motivation, and it wasn’t a natural thing. You know, I could do it because I could do things, but it wasn’t innately what I was good at or great at, you know, in a way. And I was good at it. I was a graduate student at a good graduate program, working with — again, Francis Halzen is somebody who — will he ever get one? I don’t know, but — deserves a Nobel Prize for the neutrino observatory in the Antarctic. I mean, it’s certainly the kind of project you could — if they make a significant discovery, you could easily see that becoming a Nobel Prize. I mean, he was a researcher of tremendous quality, and here I was working with him. He was a wonderful person, and I really, really liked him, but I then realized, wait a minute. What am I going to be spending my time doing? Sitting in front of a computer. That’s what phenomenology was: writing computer programs, doing simulations, and I didn’t want to do that. I had this romantic notion of physics being this thing you did with pencil and paper and chalkboards, and this was a lot of computers and a lot of taking models and writing programs and doing simulations. So, I went to him, and I said — I took more classes with this guy I talked about in the beginning, Randy Durand, and just really liked him. And so, I went to Francis Halzen and I said, “I’m going to switch to more of straight theory.” Then, I switched to my eventual thesis advisor, Randy Durand, in kind of straight theory.

Zierler:

So, at this point, you were not in thesis mode yet. You had not settled on a topic.

Jaczko:

I had not settled on a topic, although it was clear — like, if I stayed with Francis Halzen, it would be something related to neutrino measurements.

Zierler:

Right. But you determined — part of the process is learning what you didn’t want to do.

Jaczko:

Exactly, and I learned I didn’t want to be doing a computer — although again, I was good at that. [laughs] But to me, it wasn’t my idea of what physics was. It was writing computer programming. Anybody can write computer programs. Maybe that’s not the case. I think I always had this sense of, things that came easy to me, I dismissed. And rather than recognizing that maybe those were the things I was really good at, and I should have pursued those more so than the things that I thought were harder and more challenging, because those obviously must have been — you know, as I began to realize, the people who were really, really good at theory, those things weren’t challenge — you know, they weren’t as challenging for them as they probably were for me. So, I kept moving away from the thing that was easier to the thing that was more difficult, and then, you know, probably where I excelled less, because I just wasn’t innately as good at those things.

Zierler:

But you were attracted to it because it was more challenging.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

It had the romantic aspects of it.

Jaczko:

Exactly. Yeah.

Zierler:

Okay. When and how did you settle on a thesis topic?

Jaczko:

I started with — I went to Randy. I don’t remember. I think he probably had a topic already in mind. He had another graduate student at the time, and he was working on one issue, so he introduced me to one topic that he thought, you know, he was looking to do and pursue. And that became my thesis. There were a few other things that I really wanted to do. I thought there was a big problem that I thought I was going to be able to somehow try and solve truly analytically, and he allowed me to pursue that as long as I could, and then have me, for a thesis, do a simpler task that was manageable as a thesis.

Zierler:

Alright. Now, at one point in this — I understand that you got involved in student government issues.

Jaczko:

I did, yeah.

Zierler:

Can you talk a little bit about that?

Jaczko:

Yeah. So, I got involved in two things. I got involved in, at the time, the graduate student union, which was the Teaching Assistants’ Association. Wisconsin was one of the few schools in the country that had unionized graduate students.

Zierler:

Right. And this being Madison, I assume it was a fairly powerful union.

Jaczko:

It was, although it’s no longer. When the state abolished public employees, that came along with it. So, I got involved with that, and I did two — I can’t remember on the first round of contract negotiations how heavily I was involved, but I became involved in that, and then the second round — so, during my time of involvement with them, I was on the bargaining team that negotiated benefits under the next contract, and I worked specifically on domestic partner health benefits. And so, that became an issue that I championed and focused on in contract negotiations. It was very much a learning experience for me, and a real taste of kind of the political interaction, because we were negotiating, of course, with the state. We were a state public employee — and so, we negotiated our contract with the state. We were trying to get — we came close. We actually came close. At the end of the day, we did not prevail on that issue, as I remember, largely because — since we were a state employee union, the state did not want to grant us that because the precedent would set for pretty much any state employee union. So, nurses, teachers, anyone, we would set a precedent then, and then they would have to offer a similar benefit in those contracts. The state fought it pretty hard, although we got pretty close on that, and there were other issues that the union won on, tuition and how the — Madison treated tuition and those kinds of things, but I didn’t directly work on those. So, that was one thing. Then, I also did — I was in student government, and gosh, I can’t even remember what role I had and how I got it, but I was a member of [laughs] — it’s funny. I don’t even remember now, what student government organization, I ran — I either ran for something, or as a graduate student in student government or student assembly, or I was on some committee. And that was dealing with — we were dealing with health benefits in Madison. Again, that was not union related. That was student-government related. And so, I was — led up a health task force or something to that effect. I don’t actually remember exactly what it was, but it was something like that, so I kind of got — delved into that, and I also started then volunteering on political campaigns.

Zierler:

Okay, so, you’ve got the bug already at this point, it sounds like.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Were you starting to think maybe your trajectory of academic physics professorship — had this started to waver a little bit, or did you think sort of like — that’s what you were going to do, but you were always going to be interested in public policy things? How did that come out?

Jaczko:

When that transition happened, I can’t tell you, but there was a certain point at which I realized — part of it — there were a couple of things. Number one, true theory in physics — you know, again, I came to this recognition that I was not the cream of the crop in that. And in order to get postdocs in academic positions, in true theory, you had to be — you know, and it was not Wisconsin’s forte. It was not the place that people went. Although now, it’s changed. They really made an effort. They made some new hires in their true theory group, but at that time, the theory group was kind of, my advisor was actually — I was his last student, so he was retiring, all of which were not —

Zierler:

Right. So, this is your own self-assessment? Are mentors — are people telling you this also?

Jaczko:

This is my own self-assessment.

Zierler:

Okay.

Jaczko:

Yeah, I made that — I came to that decision that — it was a function of both. I realized I was doing these other things, and I enjoyed it, and I came to this realization that as much as I loved physics, and I still love physics, I didn’t want to be a physicist, and I wanted to do something in public policy.

Zierler:

And so, is this the transition to the AAAS fellowship?

Jaczko:

Yeah, so that’s — so then I made that decision. And again, I don’t remember when, but I —

Zierler:

Had you defended at that point?

Jaczko:

No, I did not.

Zierler:

Was the thesis done? You did not. Okay.

Jaczko:

I made this choice, I believe, well before I had started writing my thesis. You know, I realized at that point, I was — at some point that I — I didn’t even apply to postdocs.

Zierler:

That probably made it a little harder to actually write the thesis, if you weren’t — it had no momentum to it, at that point.

Jaczko:

It did. It had momentum to it, and you know, I was still doing — again, I loved what I was doing. It was really interesting, and I had an interesting project. It was a good thesis, I think.

Zierler:

And you probably had some innate sense that just having the Ph.D. would be useful, generally, in whatever you pursued.

Jaczko:

Exactly. It was, in and of itself, a huge accomplishment.

Zierler:

Of course.

Jaczko:

And something that I valued simply for that. Then, I remember I actually — a girlfriend I had, had mentioned to me this AAAS fellowship, so I knew about it, and eventually applied, and eventually got the fellowship.

Zierler:

What was the fellowship? What was it advertised as?

Jaczko:

So, he comes [laughs] — so much of my life was just, “Somebody mentioned this, so I applied for it.” What it was is you’d come to Washington, and you’d work in policy in Washington.

Zierler:

Was there a specific Hill component to it?

Jaczko:

Yeah. So, I was — the program today is much broader than it was when I did it, and when I did it, it was broader than it was when it was originally founded. So, it was originally founded as strictly a congressional fellowship, as I recall. Then, over time, it expanded, and the way that it worked, it was — the whole program was run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Zierler:

Right, AAAS.

Jaczko:

AAAS, which publishes Science magazine, among other things, and it’s the big scientific member society. They manage the whole program, but then individual scientific member societies would sponsor a fellow. And there were, you know, however many. I think in my class, there were about 30-some fellows. There was one from AIP. I was the AIP fellow, but there was one from APS.

Zierler:

So, AIP, as a member of AAAS. That’s the connection?

Jaczko:

No, it was just — I don’t think there had to be any affiliation. It was just, you know, scientific organizations that wanted to sponsor a fellow…

Zierler:

I see.

Jaczko:

…would do it out of this blanket organization. Now, AAAS funded their own fellows, so there were, I think, three or four AAAS fellows. The whole program was a AAAS fellowship.

Zierler:

I see. And so, you specifically were connected to AIP.

Jaczko:

Correct.

Zierler:

Okay.

Jaczko:

AGS — er, AGU, I guess, they had a fellow. American Geological Society had a fellow. The American Psychological Society or something, they had a number of fellows. So, all these different — veterinarian association had a fellow. So, there were all these different organizations, and then I get — I don’t know what the relationship was to AAAS, but they were all science-based organizations.

Zierler:

That was the umbrella organization.

Jaczko:

Exactly.

Zierler:

Okay. And so, the connection to Congressman Markey — how did that happen? That was through the fellowship?

Jaczko:

Correct. You got the fellowship, then you — it was, you know, one of these anxiety-inducing events. You would get this fellowship. You came to Washington – now one of the things I had to do was I had to convince them to accept me as a fellow, because I technically — I applied for it in whatever it was, December of the — the fall before I was intending to graduate the following summer.

Zierler:

This is like, ’97, ’98?

Jaczko:

It would have been the fall of ’98, or maybe the application was spring of ’99. But either way, the application requirements were that you have a Ph.D. Well, I didn’t have a Ph.D. yet. [laughs] So, I was intending to defend my thesis that summer, so I’d have a Ph.D. by the time I started the fellow —

Zierler:

There you go.

Jaczko:

That was the first hurdle I had to overcome, was for them to actually consider me, which they wound up doing, and we were able to convince them of that. I don’t know how I did that, but that did happen. Then I got the fellowship. I defended my thesis in August, or whatever. The fellowship started in September. It was some tight timing like that. It was like a week, and then I was in Washington, and then the fellowship started. And technically, I didn’t actually get my degree until later that fall, when the actual matriculation was. But I had defended, and effectively, it was a Ph.D.

Zierler:

So, the fellowship is, you’re headquartered on the Hill, you’re at AIP — where is your daily operation?

Jaczko:

It’s all managed through AAAS. You get here, and the first week or two, they have an orientation. They teach you about government. You get some exposure to it, and then they put you in a room, and they give you a room in the Capitol, and then you start making phone calls, because it’s up to you to find an office. So, they don’t —

Zierler:

So Representative Markey wasn’t handed to you, so to speak.

Jaczko:

No.

Zierler:

You had to go out.

Jaczko:

I had to go out.

Zierler:

I see.

Jaczko:

And this was — so here we are, 30-some people, no experience in government, don’t know anything about it. AAAS tells us: okay, you go in a room. In a lot of ways, it was a terrible process.

Zierler:

It kind of sounds like it’s a process that’s designed to fail. I mean, a bunch of physics Ph.D.’s…

Jaczko:

Well, like, I was in —

Zierler:

…or any science Ph.D.’s, were trying to reach out to congressmen.

Jaczko:

Exactly, and it was terrible, because you would call offices, and then everybody would call back to this office. So, if you happened to not be there, then you’d write a note, and leave a note, and so some of you were all calling to the same offices.

Zierler:

No cell phones at this point.

Jaczko:

Right. No, no cell phones. And did you get a call back? Well, some person got a call back. And then you’d come back into the office. You’d see a note for somebody from so-and-so office. So you’d call that office. They haven’t called you back. I went into it determined to — because at the same time, I also applied to law school. I didn’t know if I’d get the fellowship, so I applied to law schools, and that was my ultimate career path. I was going to go to law school. I got the fellowship, so I decided to take the fellowship. Then I get there, so I was determined. I was going to work for this senator and do this.

Zierler:

Are you identifying as a Democrat at this point?

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Did you limit to Democrats?

Jaczko:

Yeah. Yup. Yeah.

Zierler:

Okay. You’re thinking there was sort of like, just a basic ideological alignment?

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Or, you saw a career through the Democratic Party, or a combination of both?

Jaczko:

Yeah, I didn’t necessarily see a career in politics afterwards, or in government service. I still saw law school as the goal, so I would do a year of the fellowship, and then I’d apply to law school. You know, I wanted to defer the place I got into, but they wouldn’t let me defer, so then I waited. Yeah, but I definitely had identified at that point. I had begun doing the volunteer — the campaign work, I had identified as Democrat, and I campaigned for — I did some campaign work for Russ Feingold, for the mayor of Madison at the time, I was going to say — I can’t remember his name, but he was a very prolific Democrat. I remember I met Tammy Baldwin because she was, at the time, a state rep or a house rep, and we talked to her in particular about the issue of domestic partner benefits, so I had an opportunity to meet her when she was still a state elected official. So, I kind of got this exposure to Democratic politics there. And so, then I came to Washington. I had my sights set on working for a senator, but the current AIP fellow — it was either the AIP or the APS fellow. I can’t remember which he was. I think he must have been the AIP fellow — was working for this guy Ed Markey, who I had never heard of in my life. I went, and he said, “You should meet with him.” So, I met with him, and he was great. They offered me a spot.

Zierler:

You had the sense that he was interested in science policy.

Jaczko:

Yup, and he was very progressive, so he had had AAAS fellows previously. Every year, he looked, which was smart, because most people didn’t realize — and I didn’t realize at the time, in particular, on the House side — House offices are very small. They don’t have many staff, and so a free staffer — because my salary was paid by AIP — so that was the whole arrangement. That’s why you had a leg up on this, is you would go to these congressional offices and say…

Zierler:

Free labor.

Jaczko:

“I’m free labor.” And there was — they would tell you the — the AAAS people who ran this department said, “Whatever office you take, make sure you ask them two things: that you have a computer, and a phone” — or a desk, or whatever. Three things, whatever it was, because literally, you could — you know, offices may not have enough space, but free labor, like, great. You go work in the hall. You know? [laughs] You wanted to make sure you had a desk and a computer. Well, Markey had had fellows repeatedly, so he had this worked out. Every year he would get one, and so he was always looking for one. So, he had a specific assignment for me, and that was to work on this issue of the hair-trigger alert. At the time — I think it’s probably still the case — all of our nuclear weapons were set to be launched in a very, very short time frame, and so were the — at this time, it was now the Russians; the Soviet Union was at this time dissolved — so were the Russians. And there was a guy who was out talking about this. I forget what his role in the government was, but he made this an issue, and Markey latched onto it and was trying to champion some effort in the House to pass a piece of legislation to say that we should take all our weapons off hair-trigger alert.

Zierler:

And this is your first exposure to nuclear energy politics?

Jaczko:

No, to nuclear — yeah, exactly.

Zierler:

Nuclear in general. All of them.

Jaczko:

Yeah, so that was — so, unlike other offices, he said to me, “Look, this is what you’re going to work on. Here is your assignment. Come into my office, and I’m going to have you, day 1, starting on this.” That was kind of my prime assignment, but then as I became involved in the office, he was doing a lot of work in science areas, environmental areas, and he had been very, very involved in nuclear power. And that’s really where I got engaged first: nuclear power issues. And so, I would write a lot of oversight letters to the regulatory commission on his behalf and deal with those issues in that way. And that’s how I got kind of involved in those issues.

Zierler:

Sure. Were you drawing on your physics background on a daily basis, or this is just like a whole new world for you?

Jaczko:

It is kind of a whole new world, and you know — well, I should answer that differently. Yes, I was, because -

Zierler:

I mean, you might understand the issues from a technical perspective…

Jaczko:

Yes.

Zierler:

…but that’s not the world you were operating in.

Jaczko:

Correct, but what I was utilizing was the general analytical approach to problem solving that you get as a physicist.

Zierler:

Yes, this is what you hear from physicists all the time.

Jaczko:

Right.

Zierler:

“I don’t work in physics. I use it…”

Jaczko:

Exactly.

Zierler:

“…just — but in the way that it taught me to think.”

Jaczko:

Exactly. That’s exactly right, and that is what I found myself doing. Now, there was one project where I kind of used a little bit more my — you could say, more of the skills that I learned. I wound up getting involved in an amendment that he was working on with Sherry Boehlert, for something called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the LWCF, where they were trying to work on a bill where they would take money that came from the royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling and distribute those and fully fund something called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was a fund that had been authorized, but never fully appropriated. So, it existed in law, but it never had any money, so what they wanted to do was have a programmatic formula to take from these oil and gas revenues, put it into a fund that could then be redistributed. And so, there was a formula. The administration, I guess, was pushing this a little bit. This was the tail end of the Clinton administration, I think. They were pushing it, but he had a bill that he cosponsored with Sherry Boehlert, who was a Republican, from upstate — from Utica, I think, who was his —

Zierler:

Oh, yeah. Sherry Boehlert. Yeah.

Jaczko:

Yeah. So, they were the two folks working on this, so I got pulled into this because part of what we had to do was try and figure out a better formula than what people were talking about — a politically more palatable formula. I wrote a quick computer program that could take certain valuable input — you know, the amount of oil and gas you have, the coastline, whatever it was — and I came up with my own table. And I remember doing this, and one of the things — the first thing I did was just to kind of verify — I verified the table that I think the administration had produced, of how this money should be allocated. Based on the criteria they used, I found an error in their calculation, and I remember going to Markey’s chief of staff and saying, “Hey, look. Here’s a better way we can do this allocation. It’s politically better, and you know, makes some sense, and here’s the rationale for it. By the way, I’ve checked their calculation, and it was wrong.” And he didn’t believe me. [laughs] He was like, “Well, we’ll check with them and make sure.” But I was right. That was one time where I actually, in a way, got to use more directly kind of the computer skills, the mathematical skills, these kinds of things, to actually work on this. And gosh, I can’t remember. I think that we did do an amendment, and I think that amendment passed. The bill never got ultimately adopted or signed into law, but I think we did pass that amendment with a new formula for that particular program.

Zierler:

Now, did you extend your time with Markey’s office, beyond the fellowship here?

Jaczko:

I did. And again, you know, this is one of these things I wound up criticizing the program for. I started in September. The fellowship ran a year, but again, the middle of it or whatever, I decided I wasn’t going back to an academic career.

Zierler:

Right. You had defended at this point. You’re sort of like, free.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

You have all the options on the table.

Jaczko:

Exactly. It was an odd timing, if you weren’t going back to academia. Right? Because September to September is an academic calendar.

Zierler:

Sure. Yeah.

Jaczko:

Here I was, in whatever it was, May or whatever, and I realized I wasn’t — you know, I had made the decision I was not going back to academia, but September was a terrible time for a fellowship to end, because number one, I was engaged in a lot of these issues with Markey, and Congress was still in session in September, October, November. And you know, I said, “Look, I know he’ll let me stay in the office, but you know, he doesn’t have a budget for me to pay for me. Can you extend my fellowship another three or four months, so that I can go through the end of the congressional session?” And so, they did that.

Zierler:

Oh, okay.

Jaczko:

Then I was able to stay working, and then I started looking for permanent jobs.

Zierler:

And this is, what — the transition now is to the Senate for a staff position?

Jaczko:

That’s right. Yeah.

Zierler:

An environmental staff committee job?

Jaczko:

Yeah. So, I got a job then — so, you know, context is important here. This was the 2000 election. This was the contested 2000 election. This is also partially why extending mattered, because come November, nobody knew who had won the White House.

Zierler:

Yeah. [laughs] Right.

Jaczko:

And the Democrats were not in the majority in the House, so there were not a lot of staff openings in the House, but the Senate had gone to a 50/50 split that year. So, technically, the Republicans were the majority once…

Zierler:

Vice president. Yeah.

Jaczko:

…the election was resolved, which was in late December, early January, whenever it was finally resolved. But since they were 50/50, they allocated staff resources on equal basis, and so Democrats were hiring in the Senate. It was one of the few places where anybody was actually hiring staffers — Democratic staffers, because the Senate had been majority Republican before that. But 50/50 meant you could hire, and they got bigger budgets, so the Democrats could hire a number of staffers, so that was where the jobs were. But you also had all these people from the Clinton administration now who were leaving and weren’t getting jobs in the Gore administration, and so they were looking for jobs. It was a tight job market for Democrats, so I had —

Zierler:

So, as a staff job, you were not connected yet with any particular senator.

Jaczko:

Correct. Correct. I was looking and trying to find one, and then Harry Reid, who had then become the ranking member on EPW. So, he was the top Democrat, so he was in charge then of all the Democratic staffers on the Environment and Public Works committee. And since they had additional staff resources, he was looking to hire some additional people for the holdover from what had been Max Baucus.

Zierler:

Okay. And this is considered a step up. You’re a staffer on the committee…

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

…getting hired to work for a senator. This is —

Jaczko:

Oh, I’m sorry. I was not on the committee yet.

Zierler:

Oh, okay.

Jaczko:

The way committees work, you work for the — so, if you’re on the majority, you work for the chair. If you’re in the minority, you work for the ranking member. And typically, the majority has more staff, but the minority does have staff. Now, the Senate, as I said, since it was evenly split, they essentially decided they allocated it roughly equal, so you had roughly equivalent numbers of staff, which meant that they could hire some extra people. And with Reid taking over the committee, one of his biggest issues was Yucca Mountain, which was the waste repository in Nevada, the nuclear waste repository there, and so he wanted to hire a staffer particularly to work on that issue.

Zierler:

And the idea with you was that you already had experience with nuclear issues.

Jaczko:

I had experience with nuclear issues from Markey, and I had a science background, and so he was looking for somebody with a science background, so it was a perfect fit. It took a little bit of time, and there was nervous moments from me as I was waiting, and I had a really good interview with them. Things seemed to be moving forward well, but then with all the issues of organizing and finalizing the budget allocations and all that, it took a couple months. I was effectively out of work, and you know, but had full expectation that — you know, they’d told me essentially, they wanted to bring me on. It was just going to be a little while, but you never really know. So, then eventually, I started, I think, in March of 2000 — 2001, with the Environment and Public Works committee. So, then [laughs] there was a — this is a funny story — then Harry Reid, who is a fantastic politician, he was then the minority whip, so he was the number-two ranking Democrat in the Senate. He was in Democratic leadership. There are two leadership positions in the Senate, and this is the minority leader — I’m sorry. The leader, the whip, and then sometimes they have a third position. So, Reid was the second, behind [Tom] Daschle. At that time, they were in the minority, but again, with that came influence. It came with additional staff, resources, all these kinds of things. I don’t remember what the time was. I’d have to go back and look. Reid — the Democrats were looking for an opportunity to flip. I think there were 50/50. If they could get one senator to switch parties, they would go into majority. Well, Senator Reid did that. He was quietly wooing Senator Jim Jeffords to switch parties. Jim Jeffords was a — he was a moderate Republican. This was in the beginning of the Bush administration. He was a moderate Republican from Vermont, and so the problem was — and this was one of the challenges — was that he was the chairman — a long-standing senator — he was the chairman of a committee. It was the health — called the HELP committee: Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He was the chairman of that; the ranking member was Senator Ted Kennedy. Obviously, a very, very influential senator in his own right. So, the problem was that if Jeffords flipped parties, all the ranking members would go from being ranking members to chair. Right? But Jeffords would go from being a chair to not having anything.

Zierler:

Yeah, right. Right.

Jaczko:

So, Reid’s goal was to find a committee for Jeffords. So, of course, Reid was the ranking member on EPW and would switch to become chairman of EPW.

Zierler:

What a great Washington story. [laughs]

Jaczko:

Right. And so, Reid said, “Okay, I’ll give you my committee.” I got hired by Reid to work in EPW, to work on Yucca Mountain, specifically to fight Yucca Mountain. Whatever it was, four or five months into that — I don’t even think it was that long — two or three months into it, I remember very well. We had this one day where — we would get his calendar every day, and there were rumblings about Jeffords considering switching parties, and I was not that — you know, I was just newly hired. I was not that tapped into what was going on. But I remember, we got this calendar — whatever day it was — and it had a meeting with Senator Jeffords on it. And this never happened -- we then got a correction with a new calendar, his schedule for the day, with no Jeffords meeting. So then, we realized that something is up here, and so it was, that he convinced him to switch. He offered him his committee. Because, you know, nobody else was going to — you know, they looked at it and said, “Well, I can — I’m going to go into the majority, but I’m going to go from being in charge of the committee to not being chairman and, you know, being second in command of the committee in the majority. I don’t know if that — I’d rather stay as the top Democrat, the ranking member, in the minority, because in a way, the minority difference isn’t that big in the Senate, especially when the Senate was 50/50, because all the committees were equal in number, so the chair set the agenda, but they didn’t have a majority vote, so being a ranking member wasn’t that bad. The minority wasn’t that bad at that time. And so, Reid convinced him. So I remember Reid -- he came to us. He had a meeting. You know, he was — I can remember him being upset, because he had always wanted to be the head of the EPW. This had always been one of the — he was also on Appropriations, and of course, he was in leadership. But he always cared about environmental issues. This was for Nevada. There were a lot of really good nexuses, and of course, Yucca Mountain, because EPW had jurisdiction over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which had a significant role in Yucca Mountain decision making, because the NRC was the agency tasked with licensing the facility, or reviewing the license for the facility. So, Reid came to us and said, “Look, I offered Jeffords my committee. I told him it’s his committee, which means he can do whatever he wants with his staff, which means I don’t know what’s going to happen to all of you.” [laughs]

Zierler:

Wow.

Jaczko:

“You all don’t necessarily have jobs.” And so that was, in a way, a very, very anxious time, so almost every other Democrat was ecstatic, because all of a sudden, now they were in the majority. We didn’t know if we had jobs. And you know, Jeffords was a Republican. He wasn’t a Democrat. He was a Republican.

Zierler:

So, he might bring his own people in.

Jaczko:

Exactly, and he had an entire committee that he had to take care of, and you could imagine not a lot of people were particularly interested in taking care of his Republican staff.

Zierler:

[laughs] Yeah, sure.

Jaczko:

So, he brought staff, and so we were in kind of limbo for a long time. I remember then we had an interview with the new staff director, because at some point, we were complaining to Reid — not complaining, but saying, “Look, we need to know what’s going to happen here to us.” And so eventually, his new staff director had a meeting with each of us — remember, we were told, “This is just an informational discussion. He just wants to get to know you and figure out what we’re going to do.” So, I went into this meeting with the new staff director, and it was not what I expected. He immediately said to me — not immediately, at some point, said to me, “So, you were hired by Senator Reid to work on Yucca Mountain, which he, you know, vehemently opposed. Senator Jeffords supports Yucca Mountain. What are you going to do…”

Zierler:

Whoa.

Jaczko:

“…and how are you going to handle Senator Jeffords now telling you to go on and advocate for Yucca Mountain?” And I remember what I said, and I said, you know, “Look. Obviously, I’ll do what the senator’s positions are, and I’ll work as a staff member, and I’m going to do what I can, but I’ve spent a lot of time looking at problems with this site, advocating with a lot of staff for Senator Reid’s position.” I said, you know, “I will have some credibility loss, if now all of a sudden, I’m just completely advocating for the opposite position.” You know, so just to be honest and candid about that with him, about how I could do that, I said, “There are other issues I could work on — energy issues and environmental issues that I’d be very happy to work on.” And so, you know, in the end, they said, “Okay, we’re going to hire you.” What I understood from Senator Reid was, he was going to keep me as his staff — you just remember, as the ranking member, committee staff were yours, so you know, you technically worked for the committee, but you worked for the ranking member, or you worked for the chairman. You were committee staff, but you worked for the head of your party on that committee. He kept a subcommittee and got effectively me as the subcommittee staffer that would deal with the issues related to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Now, that was Reid’s mind. Jeffords’ mind was very different. So, that was on paper what I was told: I’m going to be Reid’s staffer on the subcommittee. I’m going to be a subcommittee staffer. Essentially, I work for Reid.

Zierler:

Where does that leave you with Yucca Mountain?

Jaczko:

Well, in Reid’s mind, I was still fighting against Yucca Mountain. In Jeffords’ mind, I was a committee staffer, and I was not fighting against Yucca Mountain. [laughs] Jeffords did it in the smart way. He gave me really interesting things to do. He gave me environment issues. He gave me — he put me in charge of his — what they called — it was either the 3P or the 4P bill then, which was the three pollutants. So, he had the big environmental bill, because again, he had been a Republican, so him championing an environmental piece of legislation — you know, this was in the age in which that still happened. This was a big deal. He said, “You’re going to be the head staffer in charge of this bill.” And it was a big bill. It was a bill to implement a cap and trade program for what we call the 3Ps, which is “Nox, Sox, and Mercury.” And it might have been a 4P bill. It might have — the fourth pollutant being carbon. So, it might have been a 4P bill at that time, where Jeffords was considering a 4P. But regardless, he said, “I’m going to put you in charge of [this].” That was a big deal. Right? That was his way of pulling me away. And he said, “Eh, we won’t worry about that Yucca Mountain stuff.” Well, that didn’t work, so that continued to be kind of a difficult position for me, and at some point, I went to Reid and said, “Look, we’ve got to figure this out. I can’t keep doing Yucca-fighting things for you, and then being told by Jeffords not to work on those. You’ve got to figure this out.” And so, you know, I prepped it. I talked to his people, and finally went into a meeting with him and said, “Look, this is just not tenable for me.” And he said, “Well, would you want to come to my personal office?” And I said, “Sure, but I want to work on energy issues more broadly,” because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed in nuclear. [laughs]

Zierler:

Yeah. Can I ask about Yucca Mountain? You’re stuck in between here.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

On a national level, obviously, the debate is: we’ve got to put this stuff somewhere. Right?

Jaczko:

Right.

Zierler:

So, somewhere has to actually be somewhere.

Jaczko:

Right.

Zierler:

So then, the question is, from Reid’s perspective, how much of this is just a matter of like, provincial concerns, and how much is he in recognition of the fact that like — well, where else are you going to put it?

Jaczko:

Right.

Zierler:

What was his response to, you know, “It’s not going to be here, but here’s this solution that I have to offer”?

Jaczko:

It was mostly, “Is this not going to be in Nevada?”

Zierler:

Okay.

Jaczko:

“I can deal with it.” [laughs] I mean, you know, there were solutions offered, but there was no practical strategy to say, “Let’s not put it in Nevada. Let’s put it in Utah.” You know, that would have undermined any argument about fighting it in Nevada to throw it in somebody else’s backyard.

Zierler:

I see.

Jaczko:

And Senator Jeffords had a nuclear power plant in his state, so he had nuclear waste he wanted to get rid of, so it was an issue for him. And while he was very, very good on the environment and — I don’t remember who the other Vermont senator was at the time — he was good on the environment, but Yucca Mountain was not something he was supportive of. Now, Reid changed his mind. That’s actually an interesting story. I think it was Jeffords that we — we used a poem that I think he claims convinced him. I think it was with Jeffords. But regardless, I started with Senator Reid in his personal office, and three or four months later, the administration came forward with their recommendation to move forward with the Yucca Mountain repository. So, I became full time, working on Yucca Mountain. All these grand ideas of branching out from Yucca Mountain — nuclear policy issues — went out the window. This was the thing that I was going to work on, and it was all-consuming, and we needed — you know, we needed to pick up votes, and I spent however long it was then — four or five months — working on this issue, trying to convince senators, and we did. We got close. We got close enough to the point where the White House — this was the Bush administration — was starting to worry that we could actually prevail. The way the law was written — now, once the administration made this decision to move forward with Yucca Mountain, then the state could veto that decision, and then that veto was essentially reviewed by the Congress, and Congress would have the final say. So, the Congress had to vote against or supporting Yucca Mountain, and so Reid — we fought, we lost, and the House supported it, but all we had to do was kill the Senate, which we couldn’t do. But we came close enough that I remember somebody gave me, at some point later, after the vote, the preliminary whip count from the Republican side. And they were nervous that we were picking up momentum. At the end of the day, they did some political things to get traction, and we didn’t win the vote, and Yucca Mountain was then approved. And Reid, I remember — there was afterwards — he — I guess I remember how this worked. He said to me in a little meeting — and he said, “That’s it. We’re done. I’m not fighting this anymore.” And then later — I remember that was his thought, and then later, he said, “No, we’re not giving up. We’re going to keep fighting it.” And so, I continued to fight, [laughs] even after this vote, and that’s where I really got engaged with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I did a lot of work. And then shortly after that, then he nominated me to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Zierler:

Now, the fight against putting the nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

To what extent were you engaged in the technical aspects that suggested to you that this is actually bad for Nevadans? Meaning, that this is a public health issue. I understand it’s got to go somewhere.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Harry Reid is my guy. His concern is not having it in Nevada.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

So, let’s get it somewhere else. But to what extent were you engaged, at a technical level, where you saw that this was not just bad politics, that there were human health implications involved as well?

Jaczko:

You know, the focus wasn’t really what the implications were for Nevada — it was what the implications were for everyone else. That was how we really focused this, and largely it was focused on transportation and the risks from transportation, because — you know, a Montanan didn’t particularly care about Nevada. [laughs] I don’t mean to say that.

Zierler:

No, right, of course. Of course.

Jaczko:

But they care about Montanans, and so that was really what we focused on. So, a lot of reviews — I put together lobbying packets — information packets, not lobbying packets — but information packets for every state, looking at what the implications were for transportation in their state, you know, what kinds of things could happen if there was a transportation accident. And that’s largely how we focused on the effort.

Zierler:

So, it was really the transportation that was the source of concern.

Jaczko:

Yeah. Exactly. That was really where we focused. And you know, at the end of the day, I think the vote was something like 39 to, you know, 58 or whatever, which was significant, because had we picked up one or two more — now, we couldn’t filibuster that particular resolution, but you could filibuster anything else after that. And you know, you look at that and think, “Well, that’s a disaster,” and the way I look at it is, “Well, how did we even get, you know — besides the two Nevadans, how did we get 37 other people?” [laughs] So, we were able to do that, and you know, get a credible enough showing that the issue was not off the table, that it was still a viable issue. And Senator Reid continued to fight it, and one of the ways that he saw to continue to fight this was to help get me on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was going to have a role in licensing the facility. And that’s how I wound up at the NRC.

Zierler:

Okay. So, now at this stage, I’m very curious about your self-perception. You know, there’s no dramatic day when you stop being a lowly graduate fellow.

Jaczko:

Right.

Zierler:

And then all of a sudden, you’re now a commissioner on the Nuclear [Regulatory Commission].

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

At what point did you start to get the sense that you’re somebody, you’re a player…

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

…that you have transitioned into this, where people are taking your calls, you’re allowed to call meetings, you’re able to make things happen? How was this happening, both in terms of how you’re perceiving yourself and how you see others perceiving you?

Jaczko:

It took some time. It did. I’ll have to admit, it took some time to grow into that role.

Zierler:

You’ve heard of “impostor syndrome.”

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

It’s the idea — it’s like, “I’m not this person.”

Jaczko:

Right.

Zierler:

You know, “Why are people treating me this way?”

Jaczko:

Yeah. Well, you know, in a lot of ways, nobody treated me any better, [laughs] because I did not go into the position… Now, from the time that Reid — so, from the time that Senator Reid — the way that I got onto the commission was a fight.

Zierler:

Because you’re a known quantity at this point, as far as —

Jaczko:

Well, I’m not a known quantity, but Reid is a known quantity.

Zierler:

But that’s what I mean.

Jaczko:

Right. Yeah.

Zierler:

Right.

Jaczko:

I am Reid’s Yucca Mountain guy, and I’m Markey’s guy, which at that time, Markey was probably the chief opponent of the nuclear industry from a safety perspective, and Reid was the chief opponent of Yucca Mountain.

Zierler:

Right. So, you’re trouble, through and through.

Jaczko:

Right. Exactly. So, the people I work for, two of the worst people you could think of if you wanted industry support and backing. Now, I also happened to work for the guy who just could get anything done, and that was Harry Reid in the Senate. So, he nominated me to the — well, he didn’t nominate me. The way the nomination process worked, Harry Reid — Bush was the president at the time, and if you were —

Zierler:

This is 2005?

Jaczko:

This is 2003.

Zierler:

Okay.

Jaczko:

2003, 2004. Bush was president, and so the way that — you had these commissions, which are typically made up of five members: FEC, FCC, NRC, SEC, all these kind of things. And by law, they’re not allowed to have more than typically three members from one political party. So, when seats become vacant, they are effectively designated for one party over the other, and there was a Democratic opening on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. So traditionally, the way that seat would be filled — if the president was not of the same party as the vacancy — was they would look to the leadership in the Senate of that party and ask for recommendations. That was traditionally the process for Democrats, although at that time, you’ve got a Republican in the White House: President Bush. You had Democrat leadership, which was Daschle and then Reid. Daschle didn’t particularly care about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Obviously, Reid cared a lot about it, so he went to Daschle and said, “I’ve got a guy, Greg Jaczko. I’d like him to be nominated for the NRC. Typically, then the administration would say, “Okay, that’s your pick. We’ll get it going and get it through the process.” Well, they said “no.” They sent back a letter to Daschle saying, “Thank you for forwarding us Greg” — and I have a copy of it somewhere — “Thank you for forwarding Gregory Jaczko’s name to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but please send us another name.” [laughs]

Zierler:

Who was the antagonist on the part of the administration? Did you have a sense of where this was coming from?

Jaczko:

No. The industry. The industry said “no.” You know, this was a Republican administration, so they were close with the nuclear industry, all those things…

Zierler:

Of course.

Jaczko:

…which was consistent with tradition.

Zierler:

What’s the makeup of — who were the other commissioners at this point?

Jaczko:

At that time —

Zierler:

I mean, you don’t have to give me every single name, but like, the general ideological party makeup of the commission, absent your vacancy.

Jaczko:

It was two Republicans and one Democrat, and then at the time — well, I guess I don’t remember when I was first nominated. I remember what it was when I actually went. By the time I eventually got there, there were two vacancies, so there were two Republicans and one Democrat, so you could nominate a Republican and a — you couldn’t do two Republicans, because that would give you four Republicans and a Democrat, so you had to do one Republican and one Democrat. When they made the nomination up for me, I can’t remember if there were two vacancies already. There probably were — or even in 2003, so the commission functioned with only three for quite some time. Yeah, I mean — and then it just kind of languished, and they went nowhere. This must have been 2004.

Zierler:

So, you’re just continuing to work for Reid.

Jaczko:

Yeah. Yeah, and periodically, you know —

Zierler:

Yeah.

Jaczko:

But then —

Zierler:

And it sat vacant this whole time.

Jaczko:

Yeah, it sat vacant. Yeah. And Reid didn’t give up, and he didn’t offer another name, and Daschle didn’t offer another name, and then they just said my name is the name. So then, Reid kind of upped the ante. The Bush administration nominated a new EPA administrator, who was then — he was Leavitt, I think, from Utah. He was the governor of Utah, I think. I think it was Mike Leavitt, something like that. They nominated him for EPA administrator. Senator Reid put a hold on that. And this is where my name started getting thrown out there. There was a Washington Post article, you know, about how Reid is holding up Leavitt because the White House has not moved on my name for the NRC. And so then, you know, Reid just upped the ante and upped the ante, and eventually you’re getting near the end of the session, when they like to clear all of these nominations, because there are hundreds of them. Reid then put a hold on all of them. So, it was something like 300 people.

Zierler:

This is how much he had invested in your elevation.

Jaczko:

Mm hmm. Reid didn’t lose a fight, and it wasn’t about me. It was about the politics. It was about — this is a winning fight for Reid and Nevada.

Zierler:

But you must have had a personal rapport. He must have trusted you a lot.

Jaczko:

Yeah, I think he did. I mean, he definitely did on this issue.

Zierler:

I mean, that’s a lot. That’s a lot to hold up.

Jaczko:

Yeah, but it was good politics. You know, it was a winning issue for Reid. He wasn’t — the Democrats weren’t in the majority. It wasn’t their job to clear nominees. These were largely Republican nominees. They were largely filling the administration positions in a Republican administration. Here and there, there were these Democrats like me who were filling commissions, but those weren’t the bulk of these nominees. These were mostly Republican problems. The Republicans were in charge of the Senate. The Republicans were in charge of the White House. Reid’s going to hold up 300 names, and the irony is, Reid was the guy — this was a Gordian knot. Right? And it was all parochial politics. Somebody wanted their pick on this thing. It was Republicans fighting Republicans. They wanted this pick, and their pick was being blocked by somebody. Well, they’re going to block their pick, so you had this massive knot of names and entanglements, so a certain extent, everybody was kind of stymied. So, yeah, Reid held up all the names. But then the expectation was, Reid would work through it. It came near the end of the session, and Reid said, “I’m holding everybody,” and thinking that the other side was going to blink, and the White House would relent. Well, they didn’t. He came to me, and he said, “Look, I don’t think it’s going to work. I’m not going to be able to — I can’t hold all these people forever. It’s the end of the session. We’ve got to get them done, or it all starts again next year. We’ve got to move.” And I said, “Okay.” Then, I remember — I don’t drink, and I went over to the Union Station, whatever day this was, and got a beer. [laughs] Because this is what he had been promising me, in terms of a career path — was going to the NRC. And then I came back, that day or another day. One of his staff, Drew Willison, came to me — or somebody came to me and said, “Okay, we have an idea.” Because at this point now, there was a Republican as well, so there were two of us, because there were two seats. They were going to make it work, because it was going to be a Republican, and me as a Democrat. The guy, Pete Lyons, who was a former staffer for Pete Domenici — and so the staffer came to me and said, “We think we have an idea. We’re each going to ask the White House to do a recess appointment, and then Reid will lift his hold on everybody else, and then it’ll all get done. You will have to recuse yourself for a year on Yucca Mountain.” I said, “Fine.” And it’s only going to be for a year and a half, because there was only — these terms are five-year terms, and there was only a year and a half left on the term, because it had been vacant for so long. At the end of that year and a half, you could be out of a job again. We’d have to get you re-nominated and reconfirmed. And you know, we could still have a Republican administration then, etcetera, etcetera. It was risky.

Zierler:

I mean, yeah. The agreement to recuse yourself from Yucca Mountain —

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

This is a real risk. Right?

Jaczko:

That was easy, because there wasn’t any Yucca Mountain —

Zierler:

Nothing was happening that fast.

Jaczko:

Nothing was happening that fast. There wasn’t going to be anything. And, whatever. It was a year. Who cares? And there was nothing pending. That was a face-saving commitment, and it didn’t mean anything, practically. So, I got on then as a recess appointment, and then Pete Lyons, who was the Republican, he also was a recess appointment, so they didn’t confirm him. They made us both recess appointments. The first thing Reid had to do was get me formally confirmed, because my term expired in a year and a half, and he was able to do that.

Zierler:

So, as a commissioner, who’s your employer? Who are you working for?

Jaczko:

Nobody. You work for yourself. You work for the American people. It is probably —

Zierler:

You’re a federal employee?

Jaczko:

Yes. Correct. You are a federal employee. You are a commissioner. You’re an independent regulatory body, so you have no direct supervisor. The chairman is the chairman of the commission, but they’re not your boss. When it comes to commission matters, they’re kind of first of equals, because they have commission responsibilities — they have chairman responsibilities in and above commission responsibilities, but you are independent.

Zierler:

Everything is decided by a simple majority?

Jaczko:

A simple majority. Yeah.

Zierler:

Okay. And then who are you interfacing with on a daily basis? Who are the people who are coming to see you? What are the meetings that you’re trying to create? How does that work?

Jaczko:

Mostly, it’s with the staff of the agency. That’s the bulk of the people that I interfaced with. A little bit with the industry I started — I really didn’t know the industry. Right? I had worked for Reid, and I had been this guy battling Yucca Mountain. I had met maybe with one industry lobbyist once, but I really did not have relationships with the industry.

Zierler:

Now, is that because of your positions, that you were an unmovable kind of —

Jaczko:

Yeah. They were not lobbying my office, or Reid’s office, and they were not really talking to me. There was no point.

Zierler:

Right.

Jaczko:

Obviously now, as a commissioner, that changed. They had more of an interest, but they had a solid — they had two existing Republicans: Nils Diaz [and] Jeff Merrifield, who were — Jeff Merrifield was a solidly industry supportive guy. Nils Diaz is what I would call solidly nuclear technology supportive guy. He wasn’t necessarily —

Zierler:

Sounds like a package deal kind of thing.

Jaczko:

Yeah. They were the existing members, and then a guy named Ed McGaffigan, who was a Democrat, who was a solidly industry guy — they knew they had their votes. And then they got Pete Lyons, who was a Republican nuclear energy champion. They had four solid votes. They didn’t care, and they knew I couldn’t really do anything, except I could talk.

Zierler:

Yeah, shine light on things.

Jaczko:

Exactly. I could vote against things, and that’s what I started to do, which was different. People hadn’t done that in a long time. There was this sense — they called it collegiality — that you just got along. You just didn’t disagree. You didn’t dissent. You didn’t do these things, and I started doing that. The first reactions were, “What are you doing?” I mean, commissioners would come to me and say, “Why are you dissenting on this?” “Because I don’t agree.” [laughs]

Zierler:

I have to ask at this point here: the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington setup —

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Right? Is this sort of where you’re developing this persona? In other words, you have these ideas. You’re not a newbie at this point.

Jaczko:

Right.

Zierler:

But you’re actually in this position now where you can just say “no” and reject the way things are being done, because you can, and because you think it’s the right thing to do.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

So, is this the point where you develop this sort of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington kind of persona?

Jaczko:

Yeah. Yeah, that is where I start looking at things and doing what I think is right, and like I said, it started with these formal things called orders, kind of one of the more legal aspects of the commission’s work. They’re more like court decisions. Sometimes you’ll hear “5 to 4 Supreme Court decision” — there’s a dissent. Well, in the past, these legal decisions, because they were more legal in nature, were not publicly debated, like Supreme Court decisions or judicial decisions. We would hear evidence publicly, but then the deliberations were private. Typically, what would happen is internally, maybe they would have a commissioner disagree. They try and propose something in the order. At the end of the day, they wouldn’t prevail, and the order would just go out unanimously. Well, I said, “But I don’t agree with this. I’m going to write a dissent.” That was one of the first kind of barrier-shattering things that I did. People had not written dissents on these orders in years. At first, commissioners were not happy. They literally would come to me and say, “Why are you dissenting on this?” “Because I don’t agree.” [laughs] You know? “And I’m not going to support something I don’t support.” “Well, it’s not good for collegiality. We’d like to project —” Great.

Zierler:

And your response was, “Who cares about collegiality?”

Jaczko:

Right. Exactly. I mean, how is that un-collegial? I don’t agree with you. That’s not un-collegial. It’s un-collegial to tell me to take a position I don’t agree with, if you think about it.

Zierler:

Are you maintaining contact with Reid at this point?

Jaczko:

No, almost no contact with Reid. I had very little contact with him during the entire time I was on the commission. I mean, I was my own agent. I was an independent person who could do and say whatever I wanted at that point.

Zierler:

Right. I wonder if you could speak a little to the way that industry lobbies on the Hill. There’s a lot of “caricature-ization” of that. Right? Can you talk a little bit about that? In what ways is it subtle? In what ways is it on the nose? How does nuclear industry — how do they advance their agenda, actually, in real time, in places like — legislative bodies like the commission?

Jaczko:

Yeah. The commission’s a little bit different because there’s no funding, so there’s no fundraising element to it. Certainly, that’s a big influence piece on the Hill, is — they support candidates financially that they agree with, and that gives them access to those members, and it’s helpful to the members.

Zierler:

But theoretically then, everybody should be able to be more free to take the kind of positions you’re taking, but that’s not what you’re saying.

Jaczko:

Right. Here’s how it works. Number one, they’re pervasive. They come to you. They meet with you. They’re industry people. You’re a commissioner, they request meetings. You meet with them. Well, that’s a huge deal, right, because you’re now talking to the decision-makers at the agency. And as a commissioner, in principle, you don’t have direct oversight over the staff. This was certainly a source of contention when I became chairman, because technically, as chairman, you do. As a commissioner, you get to vote, but there’s soft persuasion. You get to try and convince the staff that your ideas are right, so the things they’re proposing are more in line with what you want. There’s this gray area between telling the staff what to do and not telling them what to do. Certainly, when I was first commissioner, that had become very, very predominant. Several of the commissioners were very much engaged with the staff and trying to convince the staff ahead of time of what they should be doing and saying and thinking. Once again, it’s just the nature of the — as much as legally, or structurally, that’s not what they’re supposed to do. That is, in fact, something that happened at the NRC in particular. The industry comes to you and asks you to do something, and while you can’t directly tell the staff, you can call the staff and say, “Hey, I think this is a good idea,” and the staff hears from the commissioner, and they think, “Oh, my gosh, I’m supposed to do this, because the commissioner told me.” There are all these kind of subtle ways that they influence, and that was a big one. While you’re not an indirectly — have a boss, you do have a Congress that is, in effect, your oversight. You have to be aware of that. You have to be aware of what they’re going to do and how they’re going to react and what kinds of things they could do to make your life difficult and uncomfortable. And that’s another tool that the industry had. When they had the Congress — which they did — they could use that tool. That’s how it works. To a certain extent, it is the way people say it is. There’s not as much cigars and fancy meals, although there is some of that. Attempts at lobbying — but it is simply just the presence. It’s the ability to come in and state your case and talk about the things that matter to you. As the industry people, they were doing that all of the time. You always knew in the back of your head: they have Congress, and they can — if they don’t like the answers, they can go to Congress, and Congress can put pressure on the agency, and things like that. But as a commissioner, and especially in the position I was in, which was — I was not — the industry knew they had their votes. They didn’t need me. At least, when I started, I could kind of say and do what I wanted with a degree of impunity. It was just annoying to them, but they knew it wasn’t necessarily changing outcomes. It was maybe changing — it was giving information that maybe hadn’t been given before, showing difference of opinion that hadn’t been shown before, but it was not, from a practical standpoint, changing any decisions.

Zierler:

What were some of the big principles that you had developed that animated the fight that you were fighting, essentially? What were the big items that you said, “This is what’s guiding my set of principles, through which I’m making all of my decisions”?

Jaczko:

It was very technically rooted. Just looking at the technical information and following the technical path. That was a big chunk of what I did in the very beginning. And looking at issues and analyzing issues objectively, rather than with a perception to how this would help the industry or hurt the industry — to a certain extent, I was agnostic to that — in the position as a commissioner, because again, it’s not a political position, per se, so your decisions are based, in principle, on technical, legal arguments. Part of it was just coming at it from a very objective perspective and trying to see what the facts said and what the facts were in any particular case. That really is where most of my work started, was grounding it in that analytical approach. You start to do that, and certain things come out that are pretty obvious, where it looks like the commission is ignoring the facts that don’t suit the arguments. And I started pointing that out. In opinions and decisions, I would have rational arguments for why I disagreed with something, and they weren’t illogically based, but you start to see more and more. The commission had become a particular — you had this group of commissioners. When I started, Nils Diaz, Jeff Merrifield, and Ed McGaffigan, all three of them, had been there for a long time, and all three of them — like I said, Merrifield was kind of the classic Republican who believed in the nuclear power industry, believed in limited government regulation. And he was a nice guy. I was friends with him. Nils Diaz, who was the chairman — I viewed him — he wasn’t so much an industry guy as he was a technology guy. He believed in nuclear technology. He didn’t necessarily want to do stuff because the industry wanted to do it. He wanted to do stuff because he believed in nuclear. And then, you’ve got Ed McGaffigan, who was of the same mindset. He was a Democrat, but he viewed nuclear technology as a valuable technology, and his job was, by and large, to keep the NRC staff from overregulating.

Zierler:

Right. Where did you define yourself in this spectrum?

Jaczko:

Just as an objective analyst of what the facts were.

Zierler:

Okay. And what are the big problems that you — I mean, it does all come down to oversight and safety regulations — is that really it?

Jaczko:

Yeah, that’s really what it was. Certainly, in the beginning time. We were dealing with a lot of security issues. That was a big issue. I started at the Commission in 2005 — 2005 and early 2006, which was Nils Diaz’s time as chairman, while I was there. A big piece of it was post-9/11 security and trying to implement things. There were a lot of issues around that, where there were some very, very uncomfortable facts that would —

Zierler:

We’re talking about civilian energy. We’re not talking about military uses of nuclear energy.

Jaczko:

Correct. It’s only the civilian power industry that we’re dealing with. You have a lot of security issues, the Commission grappling with what kind of security to impose, the industry pushing back because of cost, and then the Commission certainly softened on a lot of things that the Commission should have been doing. But one issue that started —

Zierler:

And you’re clearly — you’re part of this transition.

Jaczko:

Exactly. Yeah. And I’m new to it, so you had Diaz, Merrifield and McGaffigan, who were all there during 9/11, so they had kind of adopted a framework. And then I come in, and Pete Lyons comes in. We start looking at this with fresh eyes, and in particular, start saying, “Why aren’t we doing this? Why aren’t we doing that? Why are we —” and they’d say, “Well, we’ve already decided that. We already made this decision years ago. Just accept it.” And I would say, “No, I’m not going to accept that. I’m going to point out that I don’t think this is right.” And as I said in the beginning, it was interesting, because I joked to people that Pete Lyons wasn’t as good of an ally as they thought, and I wasn’t as bad of an opponent as they thought. I was a little more — I was just objective and rational, and not taking some positions that the environmental community would have liked but was still enough of a thorn that they didn’t love me. And Pete wasn’t probably as much of a cheerleader as they thought he was going to be. I mean, he and I, because we started literally at the same time, both kind of under this recess appointment, we went through a lot of — we had kind of orientation things that we did. We did those together, and we established a relationship. So, on some issues, we would kind of see eye-to-eye, and he would support some things that I supported, and there were — you know, then I latched onto one big issue which had to do with protecting new — was turned into protecting new plants against aircraft crashes, and he became —

Zierler:

Terrorist or otherwise.

Jaczko:

Exactly. Yup. And he became kind of an ally on that, and that was an issue that took years to develop. But I started that with Nils Diaz when he was still chairman and began to lay the foundation for that. And Lyons became an ally. Now, things changed when Nils Diaz left. They changed a lot.

Zierler:

What’s the rotation? What’s the turnover? How’s this happening?

Jaczko:

Diaz’s term expires in 2006. Merrifield, I think, got renominated. I can’t remember the turnover rate. McGaffigan, he eventually passed away. He had melanoma and eventually died from that. I can’t remember what year. 2007, 2008, maybe, or maybe 2006. Pete Lyons’ term, we both got re-nominated — or, I got re-nominated, confirmed to a longer term. He got officially nominated for his term, which had another — he joined a term that would have had three or four years on it. I had got a term that was a year and a half, so I got re-nominated, confirmed, and he got formally confirmed. So, I got basically six and a half years. He got another three or four years or whatever it was. We were both then — we were the longest — would have been the longest-serving commissioners. Diaz was the first to leave. His term expired in mid-2006. He had been there for two terms already. The White House didn’t support him. They brought in a new chairman, a guy named Dale Klein, who — he had been at the Pentagon, and he had brought a very different style. He was very much not interested in facts, not interested. He was mostly there just to make sure the industry wasn’t bothered. And that’s when a lot of the clashes, in a way, started. He and I just — you know, that was [laughs] not okay with me, and he was very — and by that time, by the time he started, I’d been at the agency long enough that I knew how things worked. I knew how to get things done now, and I was starting to figure out how to use my voice. So, he came on, and he changed the tenor of the Commission a lot. I had my moments of brattiness with Diaz, and Diaz had a way of letting me know that there were better ways to deal with things. With Klein, we just did not get along on a professional level. On a personal level, he was a nice guy. Then, Merrifield left, and I was close with Merrifield, even though we often did not agree on a lot of issues, but where we could, we did. So, you had Lyons, and then Klein, and McGaffigan passed away, and then Kristine Svinicki started. That was a bad group, because Svinicki was difficult to work with. Klein was uninterested in doing anything if the industry didn’t like it. So, Lyons was kind of my best ally, and he was — you know, it was then fully three Republicans, and I was the only Democrat. I really then developed a public strategy of really raising what I thought were concerns about the industry, and then eventually you had — Obama was elected, and so Klein was out, essentially, as chairman. There was a difficult time. I mean, it was really — for me, you couldn’t have asked for a worse transition, because Klein’s term was up — Lyons’ term was up in 2009, so June — July of 2009, and he was my closest ally. I became chairman in whatever it was — May, maybe, of 2009. And Pete, you know, he was my friend, and we could work together. We could work on things. We worked together on this aircraft impact rule, and I was able to actually get that rule passed, which was a huge rule.

Zierler:

Was the airline industry — where were they on this?

Jaczko:

They weren’t involved or really engaged. It was mostly the nuclear industry we were dealing with. But you know, the industry actually came around and largely, you know, I convinced them. I mean, again, with allies, with support. Lyons supported it, and he was a big ally behind the scenes. And reluctantly, Klein supported it. Svinicki never supported it when we made the final decision, but Klein came around to it. I mean, again, because the industry okayed it. At the end of the day, the industry said they’d be fine with it, because they didn’t want the public relations hit of saying: we’re not going to — and then we focused it just on new reactors, which were in the process of being licensed and reviewed at the time. But the industry just did not want the PR hit of somebody asking, “Well, are your plants protected against a 9/11-style attack?” and the answer being, “Well, yeah.” “Well then, why aren’t you supporting this regulation?” And so, we passed that. He was — he and I had a relationship. Klein was difficult to have a relationship with, because he just really was a very different person than the Commission was used to. Commissioners were used to people who kind of got in the weeds a little bit. That was the tradition, and he just was not interested in that. He was figurehead, and you know — what I would hear is, you know, he would basically say things to staff like, “I don’t care what you do, just make sure the industry doesn’t call me and complain about it.” You know, that kind of approach to the job.

Zierler:

Coming in, late 2007, 2008, presidential election season, how much are you seeing your own future on the Commission being affected by the outcome of the presidential election? Are you thinking at this point, “If it’s a Democrat, I’m next in line for the chairmanship”? Are you thinking along those lines?

Jaczko:

Not so much, but the industry is. [laughs] And the agency is. So, the staff are reading the tea leaves and looking at it and thinking there’s only one —

Zierler:

So, you’re one of five, and it could be anybody. That’s what you’re thinking?

Jaczko:

Well, I’m one of four…

Zierler:

One of four. I’m sorry.

Jaczko:

…at that point, and I’m the only Democrat, but you know — Obama could have decided to nominate a new person to make them chairman.

Zierler:

So, the chairman doesn’t have to come from the Commission. It doesn’t need to be an internal elevation.

Jaczko:

Well, the chairman has to be a commissioner.

Zierler:

I’m saying formally, it had to —

Jaczko:

Formally.

Zierler:

Okay.

Jaczko:

But since there was a vacancy at that time — there were four of us. There was one vacancy that could go to a Democrat. The Obama Administration could come in, nominate a new person, make me an interim chairman — which is the worst of all worlds, because then you’re in this position of authority, but you have no imprimatur. The Obama folks could have done that, but then they’d have to get a new person through, and the biggest issue was, they’d have to get them through Reid. You know, here’s Reid, politically now at the beginning of the Obama administration — he’s now the majority leader. Daschle’s gone. He’s the top senator, and here’s his guy on the commission that has the most relevance to the most important issue to him politically. He can’t not have me be chairman.

Zierler:

Yeah. Right.

Jaczko:

Which also, the Obama administration was very sympathetic to the nuclear industry.

Zierler:

Ah, because of climate change.

Jaczko:

Because of climate change, because they have said that nuclear is crucial to climate change. So, they’re getting lobbied hard to not make me chairman. They get the labor unions — so, there was a lot of behind-the-scenes lobbying around me. Dale Klein actually stayed on as chairman for a little while. Pete Lyons — so, this was November. Eventually by May, they make me chairman. Klein’s in the worst of all positions, because Pete Lyons’ term is ending in June of 2009. He is my closest ally. Well, the industry doesn’t support re-nominating him, largely because he was too close to me. Like I said, he was never as good of a cheerleader as they wanted, and he was effectively my closest ally. They don’t re-nominate him. He wanted to serve another term, but they don’t, which, they could have. Obama would have re-nominated him. He would have been fine with him. He was a good guy, so they would have done it, even though technically he was a Republican. They could have had him as another commissioner, but the Republicans in the Senate said, “No, we want somebody else.” So, he doesn’t get re-nominated. He’s crushed. Absolutely crushed. He’s gone. I’m starting out as chairman now, with Dale Klein, who is the former chairman, who is now demoted to a commissioner. [laughs] Kristine Svinicki, who is just difficult to get along with, and a very, very pro-industry person, and just a difficult personality — I could not have been in a worse position. I had no allies on the commission. The one advantage I had, though, was that I had blocking authority over everything now, because we only had three commissioners, and you couldn’t do anything without a quorum. And a quorum was three, so tactically, I could block any bad things. I could not do anything proactively, but I could block bad things. In a lot of ways, that was the easiest, because I didn’t have to worry. You know, nothing bad was going to happen on my watch at that point.

Zierler:

How much was this a problem for the Obama administration?

Jaczko:

Not much.

Zierler:

I mean, how much is this — you talk about this in the book, you know, these — I don’t know if it was one or many conversations with Rahm Emanuel.

Jaczko:

Right.

Zierler:

Where it’s like, you’ve got to get on board. Nuclear is part and parcel with our climate policy, and this is —

Jaczko:

Right. Yeah.

Zierler:

So, how are you not a big problem for the Obama administration?

Jaczko:

Because they had so many other things to worry about. I mean, in a way, that was the wrong call. They were going to — that was it. When you think about the entire government, we’re an independent regulatory commission, and the Obama administration respected and honored that. The best way they could influence me was to have Rahm yell at me that one time, and then move on to all the other things they had to deal with. You know, stimulus package, getting the economy out of a recession, healthcare, climate, whatever.

Zierler:

Did you tell Emanuel you were like, no, you’re not playing ball just because he said so, or what was your response?

Jaczko:

I listened, and I said —

Zierler:

You’re going to do what you’re going to do.

Jaczko:

I’m going to do what I think is right.

Zierler:

I have a question about that.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

You can have criticisms on the nuclear industry, in and of itself…

Jaczko:

Right.

Zierler:

…but you can also have criticism of the idea that nuclear is a real solution for climate change.

Jaczko:

Right.

Zierler:

So, where — those are two — their ends are related, but they’re also separate issues.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

In what way are you developing these ideas? Part and parcel, or are they parallel? How is this working?

Jaczko:

At that point, the latter is just not really —

Zierler:

You’re not thinking about climate change.

Jaczko:

No. I’m not thinking about the fate of the industry. That’s not my job. That’s how I’m looking at it. My job is to make sure the plants are safe, as safe as I can make them, and to do what I think is right for safety. What that means for the broader scope of the industry is not my responsibility. And I don’t mean that in the sense that I’m dismissing it. It’s actually by law. It’s intended to be that way.

Zierler:

You’re not doing any sort of sequential logic, where you’re saying, if I help the industry help themselves, so to speak, so that they are operating safely, they’re doing a good job — wonderful, because now there’s all this nuclear energy that we’re using. We’re reducing our carbon footprint. You’re not taking it to that level.

Jaczko:

No. Not at all.

Zierler:

You’re more sort of provincial in what you see as your duties.

Jaczko:

By design and by choice, because those things were not supposed to be my — you know, that’s why you have a Department of Energy. That’s why you have all of these other mechanisms to do that. My job is to be the person who only looked at safety, and once you step out of that, you’re then going beyond the mission of the agency.

Zierler:

So, you’re saying, that’s your position, but you’re also a contrarian in this.

Jaczko:

Uh huh. Yeah.

Zierler:

It’s sort of — I mean, you’re going at this — it’s sort of like — not to be naïve about this, but if really that is what — where are you basing this understanding on what your mission is? Is it like —

Jaczko:

The law.

Zierler:

It’s the law. That’s what it is.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Right? So, if you look at the law, your job is safety regulation and oversight.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Okay.

Jaczko:

Yeah, and not only that it’s the law, but it’s specifically not the fate of the industry. It is, by law, not that. The NRC was created specifically to take that authority away from the agency. Now, that in many ways, is where I differ, especially from the most recent chairs, because the chairs were generally looked at as people who were there to promote the industry and protect it.

Zierler:

So, what exactly was Rahm Emanuel — what did he think he was trying to accomplish in that call? What was his best-case scenario, hanging up the phone with you, at that point?

Jaczko:

We met in person, but it was to get the political — politically, to get the industry off their back, and to get the labor unions off their back. That’s what it was. And again, to not be a problem, politically or policy-wise. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t actively — I wasn’t actively fighting that, but I — to a certain extent was, you know, probably one of my biggest faults is that I was naïve to a certain extent. I went back to the NRC, and I did what I thought I should do, and I didn’t think much about that anymore. I mean, periodically, I did do calls with Jim Messina then, just to update them and quickly — you know, everything — the commission was functioning, and it was working well. To a large extent, it worked very well when I was chairman. I didn’t always get along with my colleagues on the Commission, but as an agency, we did a lot of stuff, and the trains ran on time, and I did a lot of things internally to make the trains run on time. And we made good, thoughtful decisions. We had good planning. We had good engagement. We actually did a lot of things that the Commission had not done for a very, very long time. And, you know, largely the administration was busy with other things and largely respected the independence of the agency. So, the purpose of that was to do what they could to try and let me know the gravity of the job that I was taking and how they were watching, but from a practical standpoint, they [laughs] weren’t watching. It’s a big government, and we did not, as a commission — you know, as chairman, the threat was always — the only anchor that they had over me, or that they could kind of throw at me, was that they could name somebody else chairman. They could always pick a different chairman, but that would be pretty unprecedented. That just didn’t happen, and once you picked a person, you let it go, because it just wasn’t worth it. The administration was solidly pro-nuclear. I was not viewed as pro-nuclear, and they made me chairman over the objections of the industry, and largely because Reid wanted it. So, the industry was mad at them. You know, part of how they appeased the industry is they essentially told them that everybody else we nominate to the Commission is going to be solidly pro-nuclear people, and he’s not going to have any votes to do anything.

Zierler:

I have to ask — so, Fukushima happens.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Now, this tragedy — isn’t this a very good, for you, in terms of like — that’s something to point to, to say, “These things are real.”

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Right? I mean, are you looking at it in these terms? Was there political value for you with Fukushima?

Jaczko:

No. I never looked at it that way, because you know, quite frankly, it was devastating.

Zierler:

Of course.

Jaczko:

I mean, lives were devastated.

Zierler:

But I’m saying, in terms of you supporting — all of the criticisms about you, it’s — you’re too concerned about this. You’re too concerned — too much regulations. Isn’t it — I mean, isn’t that like handing you on a platter for you to say, “This is why I’m doing what I’m doing”? But you’re saying you didn’t think in those terms.

Jaczko:

No. I thought more in terms — thinking back, you know, how I think I thought — I thought more in terms of, it was reassuring that, okay, I haven’t been fighting these things for nothing.

Zierler:

Right.

Jaczko:

It was more, if anything, just self-support — what’s the word I’m looking for here? But, just self-encouragement, that I hadn’t been making all these people mad, and hadn’t been raising all these issues, for nothing, because until that accident happens, a lot of it is, “Yeah, you’re worried about these things, but there’s no accidents.” Right? “Why are you making us spend more money? You’re telling us what plants aren’t safe enough. There’s no accidents.” It’s very hard to argue for a hypothetical. I constantly had doubt that — why am I the only one who’s worried about this? Why isn’t anybody — but now, again, that’s not to say I was the only one. I had lots of allies in the staff, lots of people within the agency who believed in the things that I believed in. So, it wasn’t as though I felt totally alone, but among the commissioners, I was constantly raising things and getting outvoted 4 to 1, and not getting support or traction for modest ideas, and you do begin to doubt yourself and think, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I the only one who sees this?”

Zierler:

So, did the tone change after Fukushima? Did those lingering doubts about, like, “What do you really need to be demanding all of these things for?” — did that really change?

Jaczko:

My confidence in what I was fighting for, I would say, changed. Yeah.

Zierler:

No, but I’m saying, the tone in terms of the way people were trying to criticize you.

Jaczko:

Not really…

Zierler:

That’s interesting.

Jaczko:

…because the industry has a lot of power and influence. I mean, if anything, that is what’s — I write about this in the book — that is one of the things that was — again, looking back, to somebody [for whom this] is happening so fast, you don’t have time to look beyond the trees. You’re in the trees, and you’ve got to deal with the trees, because they’re on fire. Looking back, it is really astonishing the degree to which people moved on from this, and people — not people, but a lot of the industry and its supporters, spent more time attacking me than, you know, self-reflecting.

Zierler:

So if you were to turn on you philosophy degree from Cornell, is this hubris? Is this what it comes down to? I mean, why is it not a natural response for the American nuclear industry to look at Fukushima and say, “My gosh, this could absolutely happen here.” Why is that? I mean, just to play devil’s advocate.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Why is that not the response?

Jaczko:

Greed. Power. Confidence. You know, I guess you could say “hubris.” It’s confidence in their power.

Zierler:

Can you point to anything that happened at Fukushima — at least, something with like, Chernobyl, you can say, “Look at all of the ways that this broke down systematically, from beginning to end. That’s just not how we do things in this country.”

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

But Fukushima’s a little more problematic in that. Right?

Jaczko:

Yup.

Zierler:

You can look at Fukushima, and you can say, “Yeah, absolutely that could happen here.”

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Is that a fair assessment?

Jaczko:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Now, you know, it’s one of the things that the industry tried to do — and they tried to do it through some of the commissioners — was to argue that this was a Japanese problem. We had Kristine Svinicki, who’s now the chairman, tried to push to get Japanese regulations translated into English, which can you imagine the cost and the time to do that…

Zierler:

[laughs] Right. Right.

Jaczko:

…as a way to then point out how their regulations were weaker than our regulations.

Zierler:

Did you buy it, even with the perfect translation?

Jaczko:

No. I mean, we didn’t do it. I pushed back on that. But those were the kinds of games that they were playing to try and say, “Hey, this is a Japanese problem.” Knowing enough of what I knew from the inside, that accident could happen in the U.S. And you know, not that specific set of circumstances, but an accident in which there’s a plant, which winds up being in a hazardous area that is not seen as a hazardous area, or the signs that it’s a hazardous area are ignored or missed, and you wind up with a significant release of radiation. It very easily could happen in the United States. That, often, is what I told people after the accident, was that the industry — there were not enough people in the industry accepting that. There were still too many people who said, “This is not going to happen here. We’re fine. There’s nothing to worry about. Nothing to see here. Move on.” That’s perhaps — I could accept an argument that said, “We can agree or disagree about what the right changes are,” but there were many, many people who weren’t even in that camp, that were still in the camp of, “We’re going to fight this, because we have the power to fight it. We have the allies in Congress to fight it. We have the allies on the Commission to fight it, and we’re going to fight it, because we can.” And we are — almost like, we are in this era where, because we say it’s fine, it’s fine. And I was — there were moments where, you know, especially after the accident — and I worked very well with the Obama administration during the accident, during the crisis phase. They looked to me as a trusted source. We made mistakes, but they were fine — you know, they were fine with them, but they accepted those as the kind of mistakes you make during this kind of situation. They appreciated my leadership. After that, they went back to largely ignoring me and the agency and letting us deal with the improvements that needed to be made, which meant largely, it was impossible to do anything, because the Commission was fully in the hands of the industry. And it even went to a meeting — actually, I can’t remember if this wound up in my book — where I was at the White House, and at that time, one of the commissioners, a Democrat who the administration had nominated and who I think always had pretty good backchannel relationships with the administration — was pushing for some solutions that were just not meaningful solutions. And I remember being — it was one of the few meetings I ever had at the White House about the policy implications of what we were going to do. And one of the president’s top policy staffers was pushing back, clearly having gotten talking points from this one Democratic commissioner. And I remember there was another White House staffer in the meeting, and we got to an impasse, and I just said, “Look, I don’t agree,” and I can’t remember what prompted it, but then the one staffer said, look, the issue isn’t such-and-such. The issues is: is there going to be an — you know, in support of me. We need to be worried about the implications of an accident, in other words, not the implications of what the industry surviving or not surviving meant politically for the president, but we need to be worried about an accident. And that largely kind of shut down the White House person who was pushing this kind of watered-down approach to safety enhancements. And it was at that point where I either said — I think I said, as I recall, that, “Look, I think I’m going to do what I think is right.” And that’s what I tried to do. I was naïve in that, because at that point, I didn’t have any allies. [laughs] You know? I mean, the administration wasn’t exactly an opponent, but they were not an ally at that point. They weren’t going to do anything to help me. I was on my own. I was chairman. I had a lot of authority and power, and the extent of my authority and power was the extent of my authority and power. I was not extending beyond my reach. The administration wasn’t going to lift a finger to help me. They weren’t going to do anything to stop me, but they weren’t going to do anything to help me. That’s where it went.

Zierler:

Now, the controversy with Yucca Mountain leading to the inspector general report, this is all happening at the same time?

Jaczko:

Yes.

Zierler:

This is all parallel?

Jaczko:

So, the — yes.

Zierler:

Did the Yucca Mountain thing pick up at some point again, and that’s where you got re-involved, or are you involved in this the whole time?

Jaczko:

Yeah. So, that started in 2009.

Zierler:

What started? What’s the impetus?

Jaczko:

Yucca Mountain got — it must have been 2010. Fall of 2010. So, the impetus then is budgets. The administration comes in — I become chairman in May of 2009. The administration — they have the Yucca Mountain application in front of the Commission. The Commission — eventually, the Department of Energy settles on a course of action, because the president has said he no longer supports Yucca Mountain.

Zierler:

Supports it in what way? To have it as the repository?

Jaczko:

To have it as the repository.

Zierler:

Okay.

Jaczko:

So, eventually, that manifests itself in the Secretary of Energy requesting to withdraw the application in front of the agency.

Zierler:

Right. And Reid is front-and-center in all of this. Yeah.

Jaczko:

Well, he’s not front-and-center. He’s behind the scenes [laughs] a little bit.

Zierler:

He is behind the scenes.

Jaczko:

Yes, he’s behind the scenes. The administration is more front-and-center.

Zierler:

Okay.

Jaczko:

And so, that is their ultimate course of action, is to withdraw the application. Now, it gets into some complicated legal or quasi-administrative law issues, which shouldn’t be issues, except you have a commission that is solidly pro-nuclear and solidly industry-supportive. So, it should have been a simple matter, which is: they want to withdraw the application, they withdraw the application. That makes sense. Right? Why would we work on an application when the entity that is responsible for the application doesn’t want to do it? It’s nonsensical. We’re the safety authority. We’re not the promoter. The promoter said, “We’re done with it,” so we should have been done with it. There’s an administrative process, with quasi-administrative law judges, who have a hearing about this, the request to withdraw, because the industry fights it and says, “Well, no, you can’t withdraw it,” which makes no sense. Right? Maybe they couldn’t, but it wasn’t our job to say that. We’re the safety regulators. So, they want to withdraw it? They withdraw it. We have applicants for nuclear power plants who did that, and then the Commission — they may have had a hearing about how to go about doing that, so we captured information, but no administrative law judge was going to say, “No, you cannot withdraw the application.” The lawyers for the Department of Energy made a huge mistake during that hearing. They were asked, point-blank, “What will you do if we deny your request to withdraw?” And the lawyer said, “Well, then, we would defend it. We would defend the application in the proceeding.” That was a huge mistake. The answer should have been, “We’re not going to support it,” because you don’t have any authority over us to tell us to do this or not do this. It’s our decision. You have the authority to tell us we can build it; we can go forward with it. You don’t have the authority to tell us we can stop. But they made a mistake, and so, that administrative law judge said — or that panel came back with a ruling and said, “You can’t withdraw it.” [laughs] Which, was absurd, and everybody knew it was absurd, but now you’ve got a pro-industry Commission, and now they’ve got an opening, because this is now a formal, cum quasi-legal process, in front of the Commission. Now, what do you do? Well, the first thing is, the Commission has to weigh in, because it’s not this licensing panel’s authority to say that. Ultimately, this has to be a Commission decision. So, the Commission, which has the authority, then says, “Okay, we’re going to review this matter.” And so, we take it up as a review, and we can’t — I can’t remember if we did an interim decision or what we did, but we can’t agree on what to do. We’re split, basically, to: four doing something to four doing nothing. So, it stays, and it languishes. Not uncommon that these legal proceedings rarely move forward expeditiously, and they take time. And moreover, we’re split, because we only have four commissioners. Here we are, split. And I made some novel legal arguments that there were some commissioners who were arguing that, “Well, if we’re split, then the decision of this licensing board stands.” My argument was, “We’re split on what to do, so we’re split on what to do. We’re split on whether it stands or not stands.” So, that stymied everything. And it was a creative legal argument, and it was driving people nuts, and I said, “Well, that’s my interpretation of this. [If] you’ve got the majority votes to say otherwise, then say otherwise. And you don’t, so here we are.” Perfectly fair, within the confines of all this, and my personal view was this was an outrageous thing, that for us to say that they should continue to license an application they didn’t want to license is absurd. Right? So, the Department of Energy, they shut down the program. They fire all the contractors. They move them to other jobs. They zero out their budget. Now, we’re in a position where — what are we going to do? Well, we’ve got this legal case in front of us. We’ve got — now we’ve got a budget, and now, what are we going to do with our budget? So, it becomes the beginning of the fiscal year, and we don’t have a final budget yet. We have a continuing resolution. The House at that point, and the Senate at that point, had passed an appropriation that said there will be zero money for the NRC to work on the licensing. The House passed saying there would be some money. So, I looked, and then I said, “Well, what’s my responsibility?” I can’t go spend a bunch of money going forward under a continuing resolution for the Congress to then zero that out six months later, and now, I’ve spent money that I never got. So, I said, “We’re going to shut down our technical review. We’re not going to spend any more money on that.”

Zierler:

Is this the source of the allegations…

Jaczko:

Yes.

Zierler:

…of withholding information?

Jaczko:

No, that’s later. That’s on — I was — there were three IG investigations launched against me.

Zierler:

Oh, okay.

Jaczko:

All of which were found to have no merit. This is the first one. So, then people want — so then the commissioners are furious, and I told them. I said, “Look, here’s what I’m going to do as chairman. I have this administrative authority. We are in a continuing resolution.”

Zierler:

You’re saying, “There’s no money. There’s no money.”

Jaczko:

Well, there’s not no money yet, but there’s going to be no money.

Zierler:

[laughs] Right. Right.

Jaczko:

And moreover, the Department of Energy has — they have now gone through a budget cycle where they have gotten zero money. There is no more Yucca Mountain program. How can we be licensing a repository that doesn’t exist anymore? Right, I mean, there’s no —

Zierler:

So, what’s the response to that?

Jaczko:

The response is: well, they do the deal. We didn’t have the authority, because by law, they’re supposed to, which is absurd on the face of it, but the response is, they have the votes. That’s what it is. They have the commissioners, who are there to do the industry’s bidding, which means they’re now going to try and get Yucca Mountain revived through the regulatory body, which goes everything I believe that our job was, as the body whose job it was to objectively review the safety. Once we get in there and start keeping the project alive, we’re not objective safety regulators anymore. And that’s really what becomes the issue. So, I do this administrative move. I tell them I’m going to do it. It caught them by surprise. And again, they’re embarrassed, because you can imagine the conversations they’re having. The industry is saying to them, you know, “You guys keep it alive. Keep it alive. We zeroed out their money. We lost that fight in Congress. They didn’t appropriate any money, but you guys can still go forward. You guys can still work on this. You guys can still do it.” And this administrative law judge gives them the opening and says, “DOE can’t withdraw it,” and DOE says, “Well, we’re not going to withdraw it, but we’re zeroing out the funding for it, so you tell us what the hell that means.” It means nothing. There’s nothing to do. We can’t do anything. We’ve got no staff to go argue and send lawyers and do all that. So, we have these two tracks. We have this legal case, which is now in limbo and the Commission is split on; we’ve got this budget action pending; and I say, “We’re going to shut it down.” So, we shut it down, and the commissioners go ballistic. Of course they would, because they got outmaneuvered, and I did it. It was legal. I talked to everybody in the agency I needed to talk to.

Zierler:

Legal counsel included?

Jaczko:

Absolutely. And so, that’s what we get. And it’s done, then they launch spurious investigations about me, and then —

Zierler:

So, the IG is coming from the other commissioners. They’re the ones who are activating —

Jaczko:

Or, Congress, whoever, you know — launched itself.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Jaczko:

They investigate, and things get tense at that point, and things are — there’s difficult conversations, and I didn’t always handle those conversations as well as I should have. So, as part of this IG investigation, then they start saying things like, I’m yelling at people, and doing all these kinds of things. And hey, you know, I can be a tough guy. I mean, I could argue with people, and I could raise my voice, and it’s my fault. I was never yelling at people in the sense of belittling them or yelling out of making them — in essence, making them bad in a way that, you know, I didn’t realize necessarily, because that’s just — I grew up in this academic world in which you argued with people, and you didn’t worry about how it hurt their feelings or not hurt their feelings, but I wasn’t yelling at people, calling them names, doing this. But I was arguing with people, and you know, frustrated at times, and dealing with — pretty soon, dealing with this whole Fukushima crisis and all of this. So, they launch this investigation, and so, commissioners start saying things like, yes, I’m doing these mean things to people, and this and that. So, the report comes out and says I did nothing wrong legally or ethically, but you know, I could be a jerk sometimes, basically. You know, whatever. What were you going to say, you know? That was that. So, that was the first IG report. Again, I did nothing wrong, but they were pissed. I mean, they were pissed, because I singlehandedly outmaneuvered them when they thought they had it all locked up. They had the votes. There was nothing I could do. Yucca Mountain was going to continue to go forward at the Commission, and then whatever this was. So, I made this decision early October. By December, whenever Congress finally passed appropriations, zero money. So, it was done. There was no money anymore for us. They gave us some money. I mean, we had some money left over, which became a source of contention later, because all of a sudden, when we zeroed it out, then all of a sudden, the staff found they had $10 million. Which, we had gotten $10 million previously to do some wrap-up things, and it turned out the staff had that money already. And so now, we had extra money, and that became a bit of a problem, because now that we had extra money, what were we going to spend it on? Even though they zeroed it out, we had it left. But that’s another story. That’s the first IG investigation. The second one — this is a good one — had to do with a legal case in the state of Vermont. I mean, this is all the ways they attacked me. It’s funny. Vermont was fighting, trying to shut down a plant — the state, and states don’t really have a lot of authority to do this. So, they had tried to write a state law that could shut down the nuclear power plant, on some issues not related to safety, and that was getting challenged in court. The industry wanted the NRC to weigh in and say that this was really a federal issue. We should be involved. And I said, “No, we shouldn’t.” So, the Department of Justice asked us in a confidential memo whether we should be involved, and the Commission voted. I think it was a 3 to 2 vote or something that we would get involved, or something like that, and so, we sent that over to the Department of Justice. We then had a hearing, and Bernie Sanders, who is a senator from Vermont, asked about this, and he said, “It’s my understanding it was a 3-2 vote. Tell me how each of you voted on that.” When he asked me, I said, “Senator, as I’ve said publicly, I don’t believe that there’s” — the issue is called “federal pre-emption.” I said, “I’ve said publicly I don’t believe there’s a federal pre-emption issue here, but as to the specific vote, this was an internal vote because of the legal nature of it, so I cannot tell you how I voted on that.” And each of the other ones says basically the same thing. Well, then after the hearing — and I remember talking to my chief of staff. I said, “How did he know that?” So, then they blamed me. They said, “You leaked this to Senator Sanders.” So, they launched an IG investigation to figure it out, and so I sat in front of the IG — you know, the IG investigator — and they said —

Zierler:

You did no such thing. You did not —

Jaczko:

No, I didn’t do it. And I said — I mean, for all I knew, DOJ told him. He called DOJ and asked them. Now, the IG wanted to interview Sanders, and he wouldn’t do it, because the IG has no jurisdiction over Congress. He said, “I’m not going to sit for an interview with you.” So, then again, these are just totally spurious accusations. So, I sat down with the IG, and they said to me, “Okay. So, did you do it?” And I said, “No, I didn’t.” They said, “Did your chief of staff do it?” — this guy Josh Batkin ____ — and I said, “I don’t know, but if he did, why would that be wrong? Sanders is a member of our oversight committee. We give them non-public information all the time. There’s no issue here. There’s nothing wrong, had he done it.” I said, “I don’t know that he did.” Because then they said to me, “What would you do if we found that he did?” I said, “Nothing, because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with him communicating that information to a member of our oversight committee.”

Zierler:

Could you have said the same about yourself?

Jaczko:

Yeah, absolutely. I said, “If I had done it, there’s nothing wrong with that. I could perfectly well be in a meeting with Senator Sanders and witnessed the vote, and I would say, ‘This vote is confidential. You cannot release it publicly. Here was our decision.’”

Zierler:

So, what’s the basis for the IG investigation in the first place?

Jaczko:

Because the commissioners ask, and so, they investigate.

Zierler:

But don’t you need some sort of legal basis?

Jaczko:

No. No. They don’t.

Zierler:

It’s an attack dog, is what it sounds like.

Jaczko:

Exactly. That’s exactly what it — so, they come back with an IG investigation that says, “We can’t figure out who did it, but we think you did.” Literally, that’s like, what it said. [laughs] And my point was, “Okay. So?” There was no crime. You know? Meanwhile, these are the same commissioners who most likely told the Republicans what the decision was. I’m sure that they did, because they — it’s our oversight committee, and meanwhile this was — you know, at some point, I got a letter from the House saying, “By law, agency people are required to answer questions from Congress.” [laughs] So, here you had — so, Sanders basically called around to all the offices and asked how they voted, and that’s how he figured it out, I think. Or, he asked somebody at DOJ, and somebody at DOJ told him, or the administration told him, because DOJ knew. And DOJ didn’t particularly care, because DOJ probably told him, because they said, “Aha, the Commission voted for it.” So, he knew the number. He didn’t know who, because otherwise, he wouldn’t have been asking each commissioner. And so, it was totally — that was just — at that point, that was the tactic, was to try and throw these IG — so, again, it was a report that said I did nothing wrong. That was the second one. The third one then was during Fukushima, this claim that I was not providing information to the commissioners, in that I did not declare an emergency or whatever, which was a complete — again, a completely made-up thing, and I was providing tons of information to the commissioners. But you know, again, that report came out and said, similar to this Yucca Mountain one, didn’t break any rules, didn’t break any procedures, but sometimes, he could be a jerk to people. That’s basically what it came out and said. Now, the challenge of that was that it was around the time that I announced that I was resigning from the Commission. Well, everybody assumed that I cut a deal that I would resign, and then the IG report would come out and say that I had done nothing wrong, which wasn’t true. I didn’t, because I didn’t need to do that, because I hadn’t done any wrong.

Zierler:

That’s not the sequence either, right?

Jaczko:

That is the sequence. The IG report came out after I announced that I was resigning.

Zierler:

Okay. But did you already know what it had said?

Jaczko:

No, I had no idea. Well, I knew what it was going to say, because I knew [laughs] I hadn’t done anything wrong, so I knew that there wasn’t anything wrong about what I had done.

Zierler:

Your resignation announcement comes when? So, just the mile marker we need.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

February 2012 is where you say you’re against the new construction of the nuclear power plant.

Jaczko:

Yes, correct. Correct.

Zierler:

It might be helpful if you remember the — are you making this sort of like — you know you’re on your way out already — this is a protest?

Jaczko:

No, at that point, I do not. Nope.

Zierler:

Oh, so no one else then, as of February 2012 -

Jaczko:

As of February. So, the announcement was April, May maybe? Maybe March. I can’t remember when I left. I think I left — I must have left in July. I think I announced it in May, that I was leaving. Yeah, no. At that point, I mean, I was looking for an exit, because my term — so, I resigned in July, officially left in July. My term would have only gone one more year. And at that point, it was 2012, so it wasn’t clear — Obama was winning reelection, so I was already looking for the exit, because I knew one way — he could lose, and I wasn’t going to be chairman anymore if a Republican won the presidential. They would make one of the Republican commissioners chairman. So, I was starting to think about an exit, and I was looking at January one way or another, because —

Zierler:

Were you worn out at this point also?

Jaczko:

Oh, yeah. I was worn out, absolutely, so I was looking for an exit. I mean, at that point, yeah.

Zierler:

I mean, probably even without the IG reports, this is just —

Jaczko:

You know, to be honest, the IG reports didn’t affect me that much, because I hadn’t done anything wrong. I mean, I was very careful about what I did. I followed the rules. That was who I was. I was the rule-follower. I mean, I made the industry follow the rules, and I did, too.

Zierler:

No, but I’m saying, you can be worn out by the idea that you were getting these reports, despite having done nothing wrong. Like, that in and of itself — that didn’t bother you?

Jaczko:

No, but again, looking back — no. I mean, what bothered me was that I didn’t have good relationships with my colleagues. That bothered me, simply because it was harder to do anything, and it just wasn’t as fun. It wasn’t as pleasant to deal with them on a daily basis, and I did deal with them on a near-daily basis, you know, which is surprising to most people. People thought we never talked. We talked — I had weekly meetings with my commissioners, except for Commissioner Svinicki. She would meet periodically. But I basically met, almost on a weekly basis, with all of my Commission colleagues, even when all this stuff was going on, and they were making these terrible accusations about me. I still met with them, and we tried to — I tried to figure out ways we could work together, and I did that to the very end.

Zierler:

When you were thinking about the resignation, had you already at that point determined, like — were you thinking in legacy terms? Were you thinking, “Here are things that I have created.”

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

“And regardless of the politics and everything else, I’m confident that I have made my mark, and I can move on knowing that I’ve made my mark.” Were you thinking in those terms?

Jaczko:

Well, I mean — the resignation was a little bit of a surprise. I mean, Senator Reid asked me to resign, and I did not expect it. [laughs]

Zierler:

Oh, so he was out in front of you on this.

Jaczko:

He was. So, he came to me and said, “I need you to resign,” and because —

Zierler:

What was the rationale? What did he say?

Jaczko:

He looked at the makeup of the Commission. You had these three Republicans, and you had one Democrat at that time. I’m sorry, you had — at the time I was on, there were two Republicans, three Democrats. One of the Democrats was an unreliable — he was basically a Republican. The other Democrat was not — he was just not chairman material. He didn’t have a good enough sense of — I mean, at that point, I had become keenly aware of politics. He, at that point, wasn’t — he was just not a political — he was not — not to say that the agency decisions were political, but you operate in a political environment. You had to be able to go give a reliable testimony on the Hill. You had to be able to go give meetings. He was not the person to do those kinds of things. So, Reid was concerned, because he knew a year from then, my term was going to be up, and that July, Kristine Svinicki, who the industry loved, her term was expiring. So, Reid was blocking her nomination, and the administration screwed him, because he told them it wouldn’t go anywhere in the Senate, and they nominated her anyway, to appease the industry. It was also an election year, and she was a woman, and so, they didn’t want accusations, you know, of not re-nominating the only woman on the Commission. There were a lot of reasons why they did it, but they were also close to the industry, and again, this is where they — they didn’t necessarily want me gone, but they weren’t doing me any more favors. So, the industry wanted Svinicki; they were happy to give the industry her. Then, Reid was in a bit of a jam. They had moved her forward. He could block her nomination, which he could have done, and that would have caused headaches in the Senate, but he would have prevailed. Or, he could use that as an opportunity.

Zierler:

So, he asked you to do this.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Responding “no,” that’s not an option.

Jaczko:

That’s not an option.

Zierler:

And that’s not an option because of your relationship with him, or because of your understanding of the broader way these things work?

Jaczko:

It’s probably not an option because I was tired, and it was a good way out. [laughs]

Zierler:

Oh, okay. Did he sense that also?

Jaczko:

He knew it, but you know, it was also — again, I’m probably — I wasn’t going to say “no.” I mean, I just wasn’t. He didn’t ask me for anything, quite frankly. The entire time I was chairman, he never asked me for one thing, and he wanted me to go, because —

Zierler:

And that worked out fine for you, when you sat down and thought about it -

Jaczko:

Exactly. Well, it was more difficult than I thought, but it was the right move for him, because it gave him the opportunity to put in place the person he wanted to succeed me as chairman. That was the reason behind it, or at least, that’s what he told me. It might have been he was just getting so much pressure from the administration because they just wanted me gone at that point, but I doubt it. I mean, I get that it’s possible, but there was this bigger issue and — because quite frankly, I had talked to him about resigning before. I had met with him after this hearing that I had, this terrible hearing in the House, where one of the commissioners accused me of terrible things which weren’t true, and I went to him and said, “I’m kind of done with this.” [laughs] You know? And he said, “Don’t resign. Whatever you do, don’t resign. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” And you know, three months later, he came to me and said, “I need you to resign.” [laughs]

Zierler:

[laughs] You won’t regret it now. Three months ago, you would have.

Jaczko:

I think this was more — he was honest in what he told me. It was very classic Harry Reid. He said, “Look. Here’s the chess pieces. You’re going to be gone in a year…”

Zierler:

Anyway.

Jaczko:

“…anyway, because your term is up,” and I did not want another term, and he knew that, and there was no way to get me re-nominated at that point. The industry would never let me get re-nominated, or I would never get confirmed. I’d been there at that point — I would have been there close to nine years at that point, and that was plenty, so I was not seeking another term. So, he knew I was going to be gone, and he looked at who would be left. It would be this guy Magwood, who he did not like. He was the only Democrat. It would have been the — Apostolakis, this other guy, and then two Republicans. So, he couldn’t trust any of them to be chairman, and he had no guarantee that a new person — he could get Obama to nominate a new person then, because he’d have no leverage, because his leverage right now was with Kristine Svinicki being up for re-nomination, and the industry really, really wanted her, so that was his leverage. He said, “I’ve got leverage with her right now. I can put a person in place now to fill out your term and then succeed — and then get the follow-on term, and then I get a chairman again. But the only way I can do it is if you agree to step down.” And he said — which, I guarantee that this is true. He would not lie to me. He said, “The way we tried to do it was to approve her now, let the Republican get approved, and then let you step down next year at the end of your term, but to guarantee that she would be the chairman in the future.” But because there was an election year, he said, the attorney general said: you cannot do that, because you cannot lock in a position beyond the term of the presidency. Right? Because then, you can imagine that the president would just do it for the next 30 years, locking in all the positions. So, they said, you can only go — so, the only way they could get this new person confirmed is for me to formally say that I was going to step down upon her confirmation and all that.

Zierler:

Right. Now, you might have welcomed this as a way to — like, you didn’t want to do this anymore, but what about personal considerations, like: what’s your next opportunity? You don’t have 18 months to set that up. What are you thinking, in terms of those? I mean, do you have a rolodex? Do you feel at this point, you’re established where the next opportunity will — it’s going to happen?

Jaczko:

Yeah. Reid told me, “Don’t worry. You’ll do whatever you want.” That’s what he told me. He said, “You don’t have to worry. You’re the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. You can do whatever you want from here.”

Zierler:

Did you believe him? Did you agree?

Jaczko:

I did. He was wrong. [laughs] And that’s — you know, hindsight. The one thing — I look back, and I had a huge rolodex, but I mean, that huge rolodex was —

Zierler:

You were playing for the wrong team. That’s the problem.

Jaczko:

Exactly. You know, my rolodex was for the other team, because that’s who I worked with, and so yeah, it was difficult in the aftermath. Finding work was difficult. It’s, to this day, been difficult. And he was wrong. It’s one of the few times he’s been wrong. [laughs] But he said to me, “Don’t worry.” When he said, “Look, I need you to step down,” he said — I mean, he kind of talked around it, and I finally said to him, “Let me be clear. You’re asking me to resign?” He said, “Yes, but I’ll help you with whatever you need, and don’t worry. You will be able to go do whatever you want to do.” And that turned out not to be the case. That’s the one thing where, looking back, I should have said to him, “Fine, but you’ve got to line up something for me first. I cannot just say, ‘I’m leaving,’ with nothing lined up.” I didn’t appreciate it. I didn’t understand how difficult it would be to find kind of a meaningful career path afterwards. And he was wrong.

Zierler:

What were you thinking in terms of — like, in terms of playing for the other team.

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Like, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, or something like that.

Jaczko:

No, I didn’t — what I wanted to do was go into energy finance. That was the path that I wanted, to go into that and go work for a private equity firm, go work for a hedge fund, and do something in that space, and you know, move away from — I had no interest in nuclear anymore. What was the point? There was no path for me there.

Zierler:

If this is the fight you were fighting, what better place to fight it than where you were?

Jaczko:

Right. Exactly. And there was no — I was not going to go work for an environmental group and take on these issues that way, because you know, like you said, [laughs] I had the power. There was no point to — and for me, it wasn’t about — it was not an ideological drive. I was not driven to fight the nuclear industry. I felt it was my responsibility to fight for safety.

Zierler:

Right.

Jaczko:

But it was the job. It wasn’t a passion, I would say. So, when I was done, I wanted to do other things. I wanted to move — it kind of goes back to this time when I took the job in Reid’s office, and I said, “I want to do energy issues. I want to work on climate change.” And Yucca Mountain sucked me away from that, and I never got back to it. So, this was my time to say — so I left July 7, July 9. I had lunch with Senator Reid’s chief of staff, and I said, “Here are the two or three things I’d like to do,” and he said, “Great, we’ll get working on it.”

Zierler:

Didn’t happen.

Jaczko:

And he couldn’t deliver, for whatever reason.

Zierler:

On July 10, I’m curious about this. You wake up on July 10. Is your identity as a physicist — is it in such a deep freeze at this point that there’s like — you don’t have the muscle memory to sort of re-enter that?

Jaczko:

Yeah.

Zierler:

I mean, I can imagine, theoretically, like being the dean of a college with a strong physics program, given your career in public policy, but had you — just in terms of how you saw yourself, had you been so far removed from physics for so long that that was just like — that would be like asking anybody to go back into physics? How did you do that?

Jaczko:

Yeah. Physics was not a viable career option for me. The way I joked was when I left graduate school, neutrinos had no mass. They now have mass. [laughs] So, I was —

Zierler:

Stuff was happening.

Jaczko:

Yeah, stuff had happened in the interim.

Zierler:

You hadn’t stayed on top of the literature.

Jaczko:

No, and I had not published. Right? I mean, there was no — I had no publications. You don’t get a job as an academic without a publication record. And you know, as I said, that was what I — I wanted to go into the financial sector and do energy finance. Clean energy, finance. That’s what I cared about. That’s what I was interested in at that point. And I found that that was just not viable. It’s just not how that industry worked, and I didn’t appreciate that. They hire undergraduates coming out of college, train them up, and they burn them out or promote them, and they don’t take people mid-career. So, then I looked to the policy world, and I was so — you know, nuclear was still such a prominent issue that the think-tanks weren’t interested. They didn’t want a pro-nuclear safety guy. The money was starting to be behind this nuclear climate debate. They didn’t need somebody to come in and pooh-pooh that. That wasn’t a viable path, and I didn’t really want that path anyway, because I had been in a position of authority, and I saw the think-tank world. It didn’t interest me, because it’s a lot of circular groupthink. Especially nuclear, because nuclear is so small, and so that wasn’t viable. Quickly, it became difficult. Where did I fit?

Zierler:

Where did wind come in? When did that start?

Jaczko:

That started when I was going to these — I’d go to hedge funds. I’d go to private equity firms. I’d go to big banks, and they would say to me, “Why are you looking for a job with us? Go ask — what you do is you come to us and ask us for money.” [laughs] That’s when I realized — well, yeah, but you know, it sounds interesting, what they do. And they said, “Look, the people who make tons of money are the people who come to us with an idea. We fund it, and they go make a lot of money.” [laughs] And that’s when I became an entrepreneur. And that’s when I looked, and I said, “Okay, well, what’s happening in the clean energy space that is viable, and where is that, and where can I work on projects?” And that first thing that I saw was off-shore wind. And this was 2013, 2014. You know, I was doing a little bit of consulting work here and there, but again, that was hard to come by, because I had expertise in nuclear, and most of the consulting dollars — then I started talking to government strategic firms, and they said, “Great! Former chairman of the NRC. What’s your rolodex of utilities like?” And I would tell them, and I’d say, “But they’re not going to hire you, because you hired me to go advocate for that. That’s not going to work. They’re not going to do that. They’re blackballing me. And so, they might — if you have any contract with them, you might hire me, and they’ll drop the contracts with you.”

Zierler:

[laughs] Not a great job pitch.

Jaczko:

Exactly. And I had other people tell me that. “Well, we’d love to bring you on, but we can’t, because they’ve told us they will drop their contracts.” I would go to these investment firms. I had built a network of these people, and I’d go talk to them, and it was just — you know, we were just talking past each other. They were saying — and they would ask me all kinds of questions: what’s happening in the nuclear space? What do you think is going to happen with this and that? And I’d say, “Great. How about a job?” [laughs] They’d say, “That’s not really what we do, but come back to us if you have an idea for money.” So, then I said, “Okay. What’s out there?” Like I said, it was 2014, and I started looking, and I said — you know, I went to take a vacation at the Outer Banks, and I said, “Huh. This would be a great place for wind. It’s very windy here.” So, I started digging around, and the federal government was proposing doing an offshore wind installation off the coast of North Carolina. I said, “Okay, I’m going to start a company,” and what that meant was they would issue these leases. I’m going to try and raise money, and bid for one of these leases, and get one of these leases, and build an off-shore wind farm. So, that’s what I focused on. I did a business plan, talked to people, went to investors. I finally found a partner for that. I participated in the auction. I got a backer to back me in the auction. Did not win the auction but came close, and that’s kind of where I started my career in energy development. Some of it was born of necessity that, you know, nobody was going to hire me, so I had to create my own company. I did start to do things, then. I started doing a little more consulting to pay the bills and started teaching on an adjunct basis.

Zierler:

Georgetown and Princeton.

Jaczko:

Yeah. I do mostly Princeton now. I haven’t taught at Georgetown in about a year. Technically, I’m still in their ranks of adjunct faculty, but Princeton has become a little more regular. And yeah, I did that. So now, I’m working on other wind projects, and built up that expertise in that area and a lot of connections in financing and all those things. It’s been kind of this journey, and it’s near completion. I’m working on a project now that I think is going to actually come through — it’ll be the first one — and then continue moving in that direction. I mean, it’s interesting. You do what you have to do to survive. It’s not been easy. It’s been extremely difficult, more difficult than I ever imagined. And again, looking back to that day when Senator Reid said, “I need you to step down,” and there was a huge measure of relief because it was incredibly stressful. It was difficult. And you know, it was also a point at which I realized I wasn’t going to do more. Things evened out, and things were cordial. They weren’t friendly with the Commission, but they were cordial. We did our business, and I had really settled in and was comfortable in the position, but I also knew I had limited authority at that point. I wasn’t pursuing any major issues. We then had some issues with a plant in California, and I looked at that and thought, you know — I mean, actually at that point, I was — I had authority and worked on that issue and worked very closely with Senator Feinstein and Senator Boxer, and dealt with that issue. And the Commission largely stayed out of it. But I realized, long-term, I wasn’t going to have a lot of ability to get the Commission to get in the right place. You know, I realized there were limits to what I could do. I had survived the storm, but I knew I didn’t — I had been through enough storms. I didn’t need more storms. [laughs] So, I mean, there was this huge measure of relief, but there was also sadness. As I told people: I hated coming to work every day, but I absolutely loved my job. And I loved the people I worked with — most of the people. I did not — even the commissioners. I didn’t dislike them. That’s just not who I was. To me, it was always about the policy. It was always about fighting for what you believed in, and sometimes I did that too intensely. That was off-putting to some people, and that was my bugaboo. That was my weakness.

Zierler:

Do you feel satisfaction that you have put in place safety regulations that would not otherwise be there, after all is said and done?

Jaczko:

Absolutely. I feel satisfaction that I always did what I thought was right, and I did the best that I could. I never — and I shouldn’t say — I didn’t compromise my principles inappropriately. I compromised my principles for progress. I never compromised my principles so that I would be able to prosper in the position and be able to champion how good of a chairman I was — or wasn’t. I compromised my principles in the name of progress, and otherwise, never did. To that, I don’t look back and regret things. That’s a good place to be.

Zierler:

I have a final question. I’m sure this has occurred to you before. So, now you’re on the other side. You’re pro-industry. It’s wind industry. You’re pro-industry, but who is the “you” in the Wind Energy Commission that’s going to raise all of these concerns about safety regulations, or is that just like, a totally separate universe? There really isn’t such a thing as safety regulations as it comes to wind.

Jaczko:

Yeah. There isn’t safety. There’s certainly environmental impacts, but again, there’s no — they’re not on the order of magnitude of the nuclear power. I mean, that’s why I moved in that direction.

Zierler:

Of course. Yeah.

Jaczko:

There aren’t those things. The biggest problem right now is the ignorance of the Trump administration. I mean, Trump with his claims about wind — that’s the biggest obstacle, but the reality is that it’s a fast-growing energy source. It’s one of the best energy sources we have. It’s carbon-free. It’s cheap. It has minimal environmental impacts, and you can build wind, and it’s a value to the communities where you build it. You know, if you’re a farming community, you can supplement your income by having a wind installation that has minimal impact on your agriculture practices. It’s a good technology. Offshore wind, in particular, is a great technology. There are issues. There certainly are. There are always. With any energy, there’s going to be interests that are impacted, and you have to manage those, but it’s nothing like a nuclear power industry. In that sense, it’s a lot easier [laughs] to be there.

Zierler:

Right. Well, this has been riveting. Three hours we’ve been at this now.

Jaczko:

[laughs] Yeah.

Zierler:

It’s just been incredible. I really appreciate it.

Jaczko:

Sure, absolutely.

Zierler:

So, we’ll end it here.

Jaczko:

Great. Yeah.