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Senate To Consider Two Nuclear Regulatory Commission Nominees

Commissioner Kristine L. Svinicki is up for renomination and Allison M. Macfarlane is the White House choice for NRC chair

by Jeff Johnson
June 11, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 24

Credit: NRC
This is a photo of Kristine Svinicki, NRC commissioner.
Credit: NRC

This month, the Senate will consider the nominations of two women to serve on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. One is a current commissioner, Kristine L. Svinicki, renominated to a second five-year term; the other is Allison M. Macfarlane, recently nominated as NRC chair to fill the remaining year left in the term of Gregory B. Jaczko. Jaczko announced on May 21 his intention to resign as soon as a replacement is confirmed (C&EN, May 28, page 10).

The two nominees are poles apart in experience and education.

Svinicki is a nuclear engineer with experience in the Department of Energy’s nuclear energy programs. She also has a decade of policy experience as a Senate staff member working on nuclear and national security issues. She joined NRC in 2008 and is strongly supported by Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) and other Republican members of Congress. Her education is in nuclear engineering and physics; her shift to congressional policy issues came later. Svinicki’s background is typical of most NRC commissioners.

Macfarlane, however, is a geologist, professor, and an expert in the back end of the nuclear energy cycle—radioactive waste issues. She is currently an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. She is also an affiliate of the Program in Science, Technology & Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs at Harvard University.

Credit: Evan Cantwell/GMU
This is a photo of Allison Macfarlane of George Mason University, who is nominated to chair the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Credit: Evan Cantwell/GMU

If confirmed, Macfarlane will be the first geologist to serve on the commission. Also unlike most other commissioners past and present, she has voiced opposition to the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste repository. Her concern is its geology. Several Democrats back her nomination, particularly Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) who opposes the repository’s location in his state.

Svinicki and Macfarlane share one characteristic that sets them apart from most commissioners—they are women. Before these two, only three of the 32 commissioners in NRC’s 38-year history have been women. Macfarlane’s nomination stands in contrast to allegations against Jaczko, who has been criticized by other board members for bullying and intimidating staff, particularly women. Jaczko has strongly denied the charges.

Because she was nominated as chair, Macfarlane is likely to be the focus of the Senate hearings. Her experience with nuclear-related issues goes back more than 10 years and includes membership on the White House’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The commission was established by Energy Secretary Steven Chu in 2010, shortly after President Barack Obama decided to scrap Yucca Mountain. Its charge was to examine options to manage and dispose of radioactive waste and spent fuel from nuclear power plants.

Earlier this year, the panel recommended a new process to site a geologic waste repository. Meanwhile, the panel said, the U.S. should find and build centrally located temporary storage sites for radioactive waste and spent fuel.

Macfarlane has expressed technical concerns over Yucca Mountain several times, going back to testimony she gave to the Senate in 2006 and a book she authored that same year, “Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste.”

In a 2009 interview in Technology Review, she pointed out that the Yucca Mountain area is seismically and volcanically active. Because of water in the mountain, she noted, waste would be placed in an oxidizing environment, which would encourage a breakdown of waste storage casks and release of radioactive material.

But Macfarlane also underscored her advocacy for nuclear energy in the same interview. She is quoted as saying, “From the point of view of climate change, we absolutely, definitely need nuclear power.”

Several sources familiar with Macfarlane and NRC say this is a particularly good time for a geologist to serve on the commission. They point to NRC’s growing focus on natural hazards in light of the Fukushima nuclear facility meltdown in Japan caused by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. NRC is currently considering requiring modifications to existing reactors and including new earthquake requirements for future permits.

Historically, NRC’s concern about earthquakes has been limited to nuclear power plants in the western U.S. But after a rare East Coast earthquake that caused the shutdown of a nuclear power plant in Virginia last year, the commission is broadening its attention to the rest of the country.

Macfarlane’s geology background would also be helpful as NRC considers siting decisions for new reactors, sources say. And it would be useful in assessing permit applications for locations to temporarily store radioactive waste or eventually for a site for a permanent geologic waste repository.

“Geology has a good bit of bearing on what NRC does,” one scientist familiar with NRC’s operations tells C&EN.

The sharp divisions in the Senate over nuclear energy are likely to be reflected in the confirmation hearings. Republicans have opposed President Obama’s decision to drop Yucca Mountain and have strongly backed Svinicki’s appointment; Democrats oppose Yucca Mountain, have challenged Svinicki, and support Macfarlane.

The two nominees are expected to be paired during confirmation hearings and floor debate. And timing matters: Svinicki’s term ends on June 30, and if not confirmed by the Senate, she cannot remain on the commission.



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