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Senate Takes Up Two NRC Nominees

Nuclear Panel: Partisan split may not stymie confirmation

by Jeff Johnson
June 18, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 25

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

The Senate last week began consideration of two nominees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Allison Macfarlane, a geologist and professor at Virginia’s George Mason University, and Kristine L. Svinicki, a nuclear engineer and current NRC member.

Credit: NRC
Photo of Kristine Svinicki, NRC commissioner.
Credit: NRC

Both women appeared before the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee on June 13. And both seem likely to be confirmed, despite sharp and partisan differences among Senators on their worthiness for the job.

Concerning Macfarlane, who is nominated to head the commission, Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Macfarlane would bring “critical experience, intelligence, scientific background, and integrity” to NRC. But Boxer said Svinicki would not get her vote because of a lack of commitment to safety. Despite her views, Boxer conceded that Svinicki was likely to be confirmed for another five-year term.

On the Republican side, Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the committee’s ranking minority member, called Svinicki a “conscientious and objective policymaker with a strong dedication to safety.” However, he voiced concerns that Macfarlane lacks management and nuclear experience. He did note that Macfarlane understands waste issues, or what he called the “back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.”

Macfarlane served on the White House’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, established by Energy Secretary Stephen Chu to explore nuclear waste alternatives in light of President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste repository. After two years of study, the panel recommended centralized waste storage and a new process to site a geological waste repository.

Asked several times about her views on radioactive waste, Macfarlane mostly demurred, saying NRC’s charge is regulation and safety, not energy policy. She does not support Yucca Mountain because of its geology, which puts her at odds with many congressional Republicans (C&EN, June 11, page 34).

Like Inhofe, some senators questioned Macfarlane’s ability to manage NRC’s 4,000-person staff and $1 billion budget, but others noted Macfarlane would have an experienced NRC staff to direct operations.

At the hearing’s end, Boxer said she would speed the confirmation process. Svinicki’s term ends this month, and without Senate confirmation, she must exit the commission.



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