NRC chief says agency prioritized lessons from Japan disaster

Allison Macfarlane Allison Macfarlane Nuclear Regulatory Commission

In one of her first wide-ranging interviews since assuming office in July, the chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday outlined priority lessons from the March 2011 nuclear meltdown in Japan and provided an overview of work-life at an agency known both for leadership tensions and high employee satisfaction.

Allison Macfarlane, who came over from George Mason University to become the first geologist to lead NRC, said during an interview at the Center for American Progress that the meltdown of three plants in Fukushima and the release of radiation were a “wake-up call” for other countries and the nuclear industry.

But unlike the U.S. response in 1979 after the near-meltdown of the Pennsylvania nuclear plant at Three Mile Island, Macfarlane said, NRC -- acting before her arrival -- issued a report that assigned clear priorities to the preventive steps that regulators will require of American nuclear licensees.

NRC “said let’s make sure a Fukushima event doesn’t happen again. But before we jump on recommendations, let’s think about Three Mile Island, where lots of changes were made wholesale without a broader plan. Some were useful, some not so useful. So let’s take a breath before jump in hand and feet,” Macfarlane said.

As a result, the agency is completing work on the first of three tiers of reforms for better preparations for a nuclear power blackout, Macfarlane said. They include requiring more backup power generators on- and off-site; better venting of boiling water reactors to allow the escape of gasses; better temperature-measuring instrumentation on spent-fuel pools, and more detailed emergency communications and staffing plans.

“Energy is the issue of the 21st century-- how we get it, what we do with it and how it affects the environment,” Macfarlane said. “If we plan badly, we will be in big trouble as a country -- look at Japan, which lost 30 percent of its electricity supply.”

With 104 U.S. nuclear plants in operation -- and four more under construction in South Carolina and Georgia -- nuclear facilities produce 20 percent of U.S. electricity, she noted. The biggest cost factor is construction, not fuel or maintenance, which is why the Energy Department is working with the industry on loans for new plants.

“Regulations don’t come about overnight,” she told moderator Carol Browner, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency. “But it’s essential to have a strong regulator and enforcer of those regulations. We get public input, and we work with our licensees so they know what’s coming and have opportunity for input.”

Among her chief policy concerns are the impact that climate change can have on nuclear plant safety and a coming shortage of nuclear engineers in countries such as Germany that are phasing out nuclear power. There is great interest, she added, in “small, modular” nuclear plants that are built underground for greater safety.

Macfarlane described the governing structure of the five-member NRC, noting there are two Republican appointees and two Democratic ones, plus a chairperson picked by the president. The commission must have a quorum of three to take a majority rule decision. As a “collegial body,” the members, who have different areas of expertise, vote “notationally,” meaning on paper and in public before they do any debating, in compliance with sunshine laws. After reviewing the written votes, they meet for another round and rework the majority’s position into language for their final decision.

NRC’s staff of 4,000, largely made up of nuclear and mechanical engineers, is adequate in size, Macfarlane said, noting after the Japan disaster, staff were moved into a special directorate to deal with it. Each nuclear plant is covered by two inspectors, working out of one of four regional offices. “We rotate them every seven years because, to borrow a term from anthropology, we don’t want inspectors going native,” she said. They’re not allowed to eat or fraternize with the licensee, and they take an oath to fulfill the safety mission. Macfarlane said her biggest surprise was observing how dedicated staffers are to their mission. “The NRC works hard to make sure the inspectors are happy and have what they need,” she added. “That’s why it is rated a top agency to work at.”

Macfarlane also said she is impressed by NRC’s “attention to growing people, rotating them to different parts and providing leadership development. They are attentive to the careers of people.” The workforce is aging, she acknowledged, but “we have a pretty strong program to bring people in at the entry level and shape them.”

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.