Senate accelerating confirmation for Nuclear Regulatory Commission nominee

Robert Loux listens to NRC nominee Allison MacFarlane at a hearing in 2006. Robert Loux listens to NRC nominee Allison MacFarlane at a hearing in 2006. Dennis Cook/AP file photo

President Obama’s nominee to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is nearing quick Senate consideration, according to legislators from both parties.

A hearing on troubles at NRC scheduled for Thursday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee was postponed, and Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in a statement, in light of developments the nomination “will be swiftly considered by the Senate.”

On May 24, Obama sent to the Senate the name of George Mason University environmental science and policy professor Allison Macfarlane, a geologist and nuclear waste expert who in 2006 published a technical book on the longtime controversy over plans to store spent fuel at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, titled Uncertainty Underground.

Macfarlane would replace NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko, who after three sometimes disputatious years running the independent commission, on May 21 announced his plans to resign, saying, “I have decided this is the appropriate time to continue my efforts to ensure public safety in a different forum.” Jaczko had been accused of losing his temper and displaying disrespect to female staffers, charges that he rejected.

Macfarlane’s nomination has been paired with the proposed renewed appointment of Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, a Republican appointee whose current term ends June 30. On the day of Macfarlane’s nomination, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for whom Jaczko once worked, said, “Dr. Macfarlane’s education and experience, in particular her service on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, make her eminently qualified to lead the NRC for the foreseeable future. The nuclear industry has a perfect opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to safety by supporting Dr. Macfarlane’s nomination.”

And though he expressed reservations about Svinicki’s record, Reid said, “the best interests of the public would be served by moving the nominations of Dr. Macfarlane and Ms. Svinicki together before Ms. Svinicki’s term expires at the end of June, to ensure that we have a fully functioning NRC.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said, “Macfarlane’s background and experience demonstrate that she has the strong commitment to safety that is so needed in this post-Fukushima era,” referring to the March 2011 tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan. “I look forward to proceeding with a joint hearing on the two NRC nominees in June.”

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Nuclear Safety, said, “as only the third woman to ever be nominated as chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Dr. Allison Macfarlane's expertise, experience and past leadership on nuclear issues should make her a good candidate for this important position.”

Macfarlane also won praise from the nuclear industry. “Given the importance of having a fully functioning five-member commission to carry out the NRC’s safety mission, the nuclear energy industry urges the administration to submit her confirmation paperwork as expeditiously as possible,” Marvin Fertel, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said a statement. He also backed Svinicki.

Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, also applauded the choice of Macfarlane, calling her “a scientist with a long history of working on complex technical public policy issues. She was receptive to public feedback during her tenure on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future and understands the importance of openness to the commission’s effectiveness. We expect her to be a strong advocate for practical steps to enhance nuclear power safety and security.”

The House committee statement on the postponed hearing said, “since the start of the 112th Congress, the Energy and Commerce Committee has been actively conducting oversight of the NRC, with a focus on the politicization of the commission and the actions and influence of Chairman Jaczko.” The panel “will continue its oversight, including a full review of the NRC inspector general’s pending report, to assist in understanding the breakdown in collegiality at the commission and to determine any steps that need to be taken to make sure history doesn't repeat itself.”

Jaczko, who will stay on until a successor is installed, used his statement to review NRC’s accomplishments. “During this last year alone, the agency has responded with an impressive focus on safety under my leadership to a number of diverse challenges,” he said, citing the accident in Japan and multiple U.S. reactor incidents ranging from earthquake and tornados to damaged plant structures and steam generator problems. The commission, he added, also “completed our rigorous safety reviews for the first new reactor licenses in 30 years.”

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