STEVE INSKEEP, host:
President Bush got an unusual letter last month. Edward McGaffigan of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission wrote: My life expectancy is limited. 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 going to work as long as he is able.
NPR's David Kestenbaum covers nuclear issues for us and visited McGaffigan this week at work.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: On a clear day, you can see the Washington Monument from Edward McGaffigan's office out here in Rockville, Maryland. This is not one of those days.
Mr. EDWARD MCGAFFIGAN (Commissioner, Nuclear Regulatory Commission): Say something - test, test, test.
KESTENBAUM: Yeah. Usually, I ask people what they had for breakfast.
Mr. MCGAFFIGAN: I had peanut butter sandwiches.
KESTENBAUM: That's food for a marathon runner, and McGaffigan has run a dozen of them. One day, he ran 50 miles. I know he's fast. I once had to chase him down a hallway to get a question in. And things seem sort of normal. McGaffigan is here, wearing a blue shirt and tie, though he sits still like someone conserving energy.
Mr. MCGAFFIGAN: I think if I just stayed at home waiting to die, it wouldn't be a very good way to go. I'm functional at the moment. I could die at any moment due to brain hemorrhage. But barring that, I should be able to decline for several months and be functional for several months.
KESTENBAUM: McGaffigan is like that general willing to die in his boots. He's had the staff put together an obituary. And recently, he started speaking out about something he used to be professionally mute on: the U.S. plan to deal with nuclear waste. He says it's a failure.
Mr. MCGAFFIGAN: Well, I have a limited time left. And this is something that has bothered me for some time.
KESTENBAUM: Waste is one of the major hang-ups for nuclear power. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars on plans to store it in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. McGaffigan thinks that's unworkable. It's not a bad site, he says, but Nevada has fought it. He thinks its time to start over.
Mr. MCGAFFIGAN: We so ruined politics with the State of Nevada that we've never recovered. And we may, we are unlikely to recover. You cannot impose things on sovereign states.
KESTENBAUM: A government official later criticized McGaffigan for speaking out, then learned of his medical condition and there was an apology. McGaffigan has been a public servant for three decades. Thirty years of paychecks from the U.S. Treasury. He says he's never taken money from industry.
McGaffigan has had jobs on Capitol Hill, in the White House, at the embassy in Moscow. But if you go way back, he did graduate work in physics. And he says if there were one thing he could convince people of about nuclear power, it's that radiation is everywhere and its risks should be kept in perspective. There's radioactive potassium in bananas and from our food, radioactive potassium in our bodies.
Mr. MCGAFFIGAN: We self-radiate cells at 40 milligrams per year because of the potassium 40 we carry in our bodies. Double beds, you know, your spouse will radiate you to about two or three milligrams a year. These are doses that we actually regulate out. And I've always wondered, you know, when people sort of demand even tighter regulation why they are not demanding that double beds be regulated, or bananas be regulated, or Brazil nuts be regulated.
KESTENBAUM: McGaffigan is also fond of saying that walking into the U.S. Capitol will get you a little extra dose because of the stone used to build it.
Mr. MCGAFFIGAN: I have measured it with my micro R-meter; I could lend you one if you wanted it.
KESTENBAUM: So you brought basically a Geiger counter in the Capitol to measure what the radiation was there?
Mr. MCGAFFIGAN: I did that. My son was, at the time, a student in the Senate page program, and he needed a science project so we were working on that.
KESTENBAUM: McGaffigan is 58 years old. His wife, Peggy, died of Huntington's disease some years ago. He says when she got sick he boiled his life down to home and work. He has two children, a son, Edward, a daughter, Margaret. He coached their sports teams growing up. Margaret is now an intern at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. McGaffigan has worked with the NRC for over a decade. His colleagues say he knows even obscure regulations by heart.
The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote a story called "The Last Night of the World." In it, everyone has a dream that tells them that the world will end, not with a bomb, just end like the closing of a book. People don't panic, they hug their loved ones, do the dishes and go to bed. McGaffigan says his living now the way he has always lived.
MCGAFFIGAN: 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. I've always filed my taxes. I'm going to work on my two children's taxes. Whether I'm here or at home, I tend to be working on paper, you know. And at home, it's the wonders of tax returns. When I'm here, it's the wonders of part 52, which is the new rule as to how we're going to license the new plants.
KESTENBAUM: I feel like a lot of people when they get a diagnosis say, you know, I'd always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, or I want to be at home at this time, you know. And you're at work.
Mr. MCGAFFIGAN: Well, I didn't ever consider going to the Grand Canyon. I got a lot of the travel out of my system early in my life. There's a job to be done here and I'm good at it, and I'm good at it even when I'm tired, which I am.
KESTENBAUM: Edward McGaffigan is the longest serving commissioner in the history of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.