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July 28, 2014

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Political dynamics heighten interest in review of NRC nominees

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THE NEW YORK TIMES

From right: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko, NRC Commissioner William Magwood and NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki are sworn in before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 14, 2011. Jaczko faced criticism over his management style from fellow commissioners.

Former Harry Reid aide Gregory Jaczko’s tenure at the top of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission comes one step closer to its end Wednesday, when a Senate committee convenes to review a pair of nominees — one the Obama administration’s pick to replace him.

The Senate Environment and Public Works committee will grill Kristine Svinicki, a Republican commissioner, and Allison Macfarlane, a Democratic nominee, about where they stand on a host of issues concerning the NRC, not the least of which is Yucca Mountain.

Svinicki, who has already spent one five-year term as an NRC commissioner, supports the development of Yucca Mountain. Macfarlane, who has never been on the commission but is being nominated to be its chairwoman, doesn’t.

That said, both nominees are likely to make it through the committee process after what’s expected to be a dynamic affair. Svinicki has the ardent support of Republicans and the expressed backing of at least one of the Democrats on the committee, but has old scores with committee chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, to whom she misrepresented her past experience working on Yucca Mountain the last time she was before this committee for a nomination review.

Reid has continued to oppose her nomination because of her support for Yucca Mountain, as have Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley (who won’t actually get a chance to vote yea or nay on her nomination, as only the Senate confirms appointees).

Macfarlane has received glowing reviews from Reid and Boxer, predicated largely on the work she did as a member of the blue ribbon commission on nuclear waste management, which recommended earlier this year that in the future, the federal government should seek the consent of a potential host state before sticking them with a nuclear waste repository — as was not done in the case of Yucca Mountain.

Though the NRC did issue a final decision to halt the Yucca licensing process under Jaczko’s leadership, and hasn’t received any new Yucca funding in years, it’s likely the future NRC commissioners will have to revisit questions of whether and how to proceed with the project in the near future.

A federal appeals court is expected to rule in the next few weeks on whether the NRC was legally able to choose to stop short on the Yucca licensing process when there is still an extra $10 million in unspent funds dedicated to the project and waiting to be spent.

Regardless of their ruling, Republicans in the Senate and House are hellbent on reinvigorating the project and replenishing its funding if they get a controlling majority in both houses of Congress in the 2012 election. Should they be successful, it does not look like they’ll have too much trouble getting Democrats on board: Last week, 76 House Democrats joined most Republicans in supporting an Energy and Water appropriations bill amendment to force the NRC to spend the same remaining $10 million on Yucca that the federal appeals court is currently considering.

The two commissioners’ hearing begins at 10 a.m. EST and will stream here.

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