By Kennedy Maize

A retired Entergy Co. executive, who has loads of hands-on operating experience at nuclear power plants, is a major contender for an open seat on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Daniel F. Packer Jr., 61, who was the first African-American to manage a U.S. nuclear power plant (Entergy’s Waterford plant), confirmed to the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper last week that he had met with the Obama transition team to discuss a slot on the NRC. Under law, the five-member NRC has three members from the president’s party and two from the minority. The president appoints the chairman from among the commissioners. The commissioners serve five-year terms, so the partisan balance adjusts as the terms expire or commissioners retire.

The commission has a vacancy for a term expiring in 2010, which would likely be the seat for Packer, should the Obama administration choose him. A position now held by Republican Peter Lyons becomes vacant in June, giving the Obama administration another early selection, to set the partisan balance at three Democrats and two Republicans.

Most Washington speculation suggests that sitting Democratic NRC commissioner Greg Jaczko is likely to be elevated to the chairmanship, demoting current Republican chairman Dale Klein, a protégé of former Bush administration Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to a member of the commission until his term expires in June 2011. Before his appointment to the NRC, Jaczko, a physicist, had been the science advisor to Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Confirming his meetings with the Obama transition team, Packer told the New Orleans newspaper, “They were looking at me as a potential NRC commissioner and possibly its chairman. I don’t want to say anything more about it.”

Packer would bring more hands-on nuclear power plant operating experience to the NRC than it has ever had. The general trend of NRC commissioners over the years since 1976 (and at the Atomic Energy Commission from 1946-1976) has been attorneys and academics, with little experience at the controls of a nuclear reactor.

Packer, a native of Alabama, born in the days of intense racial segregation, is the son of a father who worked at a nearby Air Force base and mother who was a caterer, according to a 2003 profile in New Orleans City Business magazine. He was an outstanding high-school student in science and mathematics, and was able to enroll in the prestigious Tuskegee Institute engineering program.

But Packer’s father got sick while he was in college and Packer had to drop out of Tuskegee for financial reasons in 1969. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy. His high grades and engineering credentials got him into the elite Navy nuclear program, then run by the legendary Adm. Hyman Rickover. Packer became a Navy reactor operator, and left the service in 1975.

Packer then held a number of jobs as a licensed civilian reactor operator, landing at Entergy’s Waterford plant. In 1990, he became Waterford’s general manager. As he worked at reactor operations, he also earned a bachelor’s degree in business and an MBA. He continued to impress Entergy’s management as a high-energy performer who produced quality results.

During the 1980s and the early 1990s, the City of New Orleans and Entergy fought a nasty, expensive, and protracted battle over whether the city would take over the utility’s operations. Ultimately, the city dropped its plans to turn the local investor-owned utility into a municipal utility.

But much bad blood remained between the city and Entergy. In the mid-1990s, the utility brought in Packer to work to improve relations between the city and the company. According to sources for the city, he did a splendid job, representing what had once been an entirely white utility power structure dealing with a mostly black city government.

As a result, Packer was named Entergy New Orleans CEO in 1998. He was in charge of the utility when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. He won widespread praise for his work in the recovery, at a time when most other officials, including the Bush White House, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state government, and the city government were trashed for their performance.

If Packer were named to the NRC, he would become the first NRC licensed reactor operator to join the commission, offering a new perspective. He would understand the excitement of the job (which one hopes is rare) and the boredom (which is the norm). He would also become the first hands-on nuclear utility executive to serve as an NRC commissioner.

A well-connected Entergy source told PowerBlog that Packer is a “good, smart guy who would be a great commissioner. The fact that he knows something about the industry he would be regulating will probably disqualify him.”