Completing a Life's Work While Death Awaits

Commissioner Edward McGaffigan. Credit: NRC Photo. i i

hide captionCommissioner Edward McGaffigan addresses colleagues in November 2006 at a ceremony honoring his long service at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

NRC Photo
Commissioner Edward McGaffigan. Credit: NRC Photo.

Commissioner Edward McGaffigan addresses colleagues in November 2006 at a ceremony honoring his long service at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

NRC Photo

Last month President Bush received an unusual letter. It came from Edward McGaffigan, one of five commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) — the agency that oversees the nuclear power industry.

"My life expectancy is limited," McGaffigan wrote. He explained that he was rapidly losing a battle with cancer, and that the search for his replacement should begin.

But McGaffigan is not stepping down immediately. He says he will keep coming to work as long as he is able to do the job.

"I think if I just stayed at home waiting to die wouldn't be a very good way to go," McGaffigan said. "I'm functional at the moment. ... I should be able to decline for several months, and be functional for several months."

McGaffigan has worked at the NRC for over a decade. He is the longest-serving commissioner in the history of the NRC. His colleagues say he knows even obscure regulations by heart.

McGaffigan is like a general willing to die in his boots. He's had the NRC staff put together an obituary. And recently he's started speaking out about something he used to be professionally mute on: the United States plan to deal with nuclear waste. He says it's a failure.

"I have a limited time left," McGaffigan said. "And this is something that has bothered me for some time."

Waste is one of the major problems confronting nuclear power. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars on plans to store it under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. McGaffigan thinks that's unworkable.

It's not a bad site, he says. But Nevada has fought it. He thinks it's time to start over.

"We so ruined politics with the state of Nevada that we've never recovered. We're unlikely to recover," McGaffigan said. "You cannot impose things on sovereign states."

A Department of Energy official criticized McGaffigan for speaking out on the controversy. But there was an apology after the commissioner's medical condition was brought to light.

McGaffigan has been a public servant for three decades. He says he's never taken money from industry.

McGaffigan has held jobs on Capitol Hill, in the White House and at the embassy in Moscow. But if you go way back he did graduate work in physics. And he says if there was one thing he could convince people of about nuclear power it's that radiation is everywhere, and its risks should be kept in perspective.

"We self-irradiate ourselves at 40 millirems (a unit for measuring small doses of radiation) per year because of the potassium 40 we carry in our bodies. "[In] double beds, you know your spouse will irradiate you to about 2 or 3 millirems a year," McGaffigan said. "These are doses we actually regulate at. And I've always wondered, when people demand even tighter [nuclear] regulation, why they're not demanding that double beds be regulated or bananas be regulated or Brazil nuts be regulated."

McGaffigan is 58. His wife Peggy died of Huntington's disease some years ago. He says he boiled his life down to home and work when she got sick.

He has two children: son, Edward, and a daughter, Margaret. He coached their sports teams growing up. Margaret is now an intern at the NRC.

"When I'm at home on weekends, I am organizing. And it's what I do. I'm writing notes to my children, notes to my lawyer, notes to my accountant." McGaffigan said. "Whether I'm here or home, I tend to be working on paper. At home it's the wonders of tax returns. When I'm here, it's the wonders of Part 52 — the new rule as to how we're going to license the new [nuclear] plants."

A dedicated civil servant, McGaffigan says he is living now the way he always has.

"I got a lot of the travel out my system early in my life," McGaffigan said. "There is a job to be done here. I'm good at it. And I'm good at it even when I'm tired, which I am."

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