CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Two days after announcing his resignation from the chairmanship of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko took the podium before an assembly of industry representatives to detail his vision of the future.

"I don't intend this to be my last speech," he told the crowd of physicists and CEOs, guests at the Nuclear Energy Institute's annual Nuclear Energy Assembly. However, given his recent change of circumstances, he said, "I do intend it to be more forward-looking than some other speeches I've given."

Jaczko became one of the most polarizing figures in regulatory Washington during his three-year tenure as head of NRC. He was accused by critics of bullying his staff and withholding information, while his supporters praised him for his exacting commitment to safety. His speech to the Nuclear Energy Assembly seemed intended to focus on the latter part of his record.

"In general, we've seen tremendous progress" in safety, particularly in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster last year, he said.

Immediately following the Japanese disaster, he created a special task force to review safety and response guidelines at U.S. nuclear reactors. He has since been pushing the task force's recommendations to be enacted within a five-year period, an action that has prompted some resistance from the industry.

Alluding to this difference of timelines, he noted that "while some might see [my time frame] of five years as an aggressive target, I think most of us can agree that 10 years is too long."

'Low-probability, high-incident events'
Jaczko noted that, through Fukushima, the agency's understanding of nuclear disaster itself had evolved. What Japan's crisis -- the unlikely product of an earthquake, a tsunami and more than a little bad luck -- taught the United States, he said, was that no matter how many contingencies an agency plans for, there can always be an assembly of forces that takes you by surprise.

"The problems that arise in the future will likely involve low-probability, high-incident events -- it's likely to be something we didn't foresee," he said.

The best thing that regulators and the industry can do is invest in and enhance their tools for risk identification and assessment, he said, in order to narrow the margin of possibility that such a low-probability event will occur again.

The Fukushima disaster also showed NRC that the physical impacts of a nuclear disaster were not constrained only to radiation exposure, he said. Although the incident resulted in no recorded cases of radiation sickness, it did displace tens of thousands of people, cast the Japanese economy adrift and cause the nation to abruptly end its reliance on nuclear energy, he pointed out.

"We have to start asking ourselves, if something like Fukushima happened here, how would we address the socioeconomic issues?" he said. "If we have built in a system of defense" that reacts similarly to a nuclear disaster, "these are the issues we'll be grappling with."

For the moment, at least, Jaczko will remain among those grappling. At a press conference following the speech, he told reporters that he would remain as chairman of the commission until a successor had been approved by Congress -- a process that could, theoretically, be prolonged for the remaining 13 months of his tenure.

Some sources have speculated that a new candidate could be fast-tracked through the congressional approval process before the November election.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500