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Notes On Nuclear Energy Regulation

Government: New head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives her first press briefing

by Jeff Johnson
August 20, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 34

Credit: megadeals~mergers~acquisitions
Macfarlane (second from right), on site at Virginia’s North Anna nuclear facility.
Credit: megadeals~mergers~acquisitions
Macfarlane (second from right), on site at Virginia’s North Anna nuclear facility.

“Geology matters” is a key lesson from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit the coast of Japan, resulting in the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant complex, said Allison M. Macfarlane, new head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, at her first press briefing last week.

Macfarlane is the 33rd NRC commissioner and the first geologist in that position. In her address to energy reporters, she focused on her top priorities for the commission. Her talk was short on details, however. She noted she had only been on the job for a month.

As one top priority, Macfarlane said, the commission is looking closely at lessons learned from Fukushima. It recently issued three orders to ensure that U.S. reactors have safeguards that were missing or inadequate in Japan. These include backup electricity sources, proper instrumentation to maintain water levels in spent-fuel pools, and better technologies to control heat and gases.

Another top priority, Macfarlane added, is to improve internal and external communications at NRC. On this front, she singled out the commission’s excessive use of acronyms.

“I read NRC documents and I imagine a grandmother living near a nuclear power plant trying to slog through this material. I just wring my hands,” Macfarlane said.

A former associate professor at George Mason University, Macfarlane most recently served on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, a project to examine nuclear waste in light of President Barack Obama’s decision to veto the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste repository in Nevada. The panel offered many far-reaching recommendations, including an overhauled process to locate a new repository and a central waste storage facility while the repository search takes place.

Macfarlane did not back away from those recommendations—she called the need for a geologic nuclear waste repository “absolute”—but stressed that NRC is a regulatory body and does not set policy.

But Macfarlane also predicted that NRC is likely to elevate the importance of properly handling spent fuel and radioactive waste in its future oversight; she said that subject had been an “afterthought.”



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