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October 24, 2014

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Senate confirmation for Nuclear Regulatory Commission posts starts smoothly

Allison Macfarlane, shown in this 2006 file photo with Robert Loux, then executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, at a Yucca Mountain hearing, has been named to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Allison Macfarlane, shown in this 2006 file photo with Robert Loux, then executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, at a Yucca Mountain hearing, has been named to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The first step in the Senate’s confirmation of two nominees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday turned out to be devoid of the fireworks and vitriol that have come to define the last few months of nuclear regulatory hearings on the Hill.

Instead, Allison Macfarlane, up for chairmanship of the commission, and Kristine Svinicki, nominated for reappointment, sat through a routine round of questioning from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Lawmakers and the two commissioners seemed eager to move on from the era of division that had gripped the NRC under the chairmanship of Gregory Jaczko, who submitted his resignation last month.

President Barack Obama swiftly proposed Macfarlane, a professor at George Mason University and a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on nuclear waste management, to take over the post.

Macfarlane is a Democrat who doesn’t support development at Yucca Mountain and has minimal management experience. She has never overseen an organization as large as the 4,000-person NRC.

That profile, in another time, might have made her nomination a prime target for Republican lawmakers. But there were no challenges to her candidacy.

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions promised not to block her nomination, and Sen. Lamar Alexander said he’s “been very impressed with President Obama’s nominees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

Part of the cooperative spirit seems born from the fact lawmakers from both parties agree “it’s necessary to have a fresh start over there,” as committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer put it.

But each side has something to lose in a fight.

Both Macfarlane’s and Svinicki’s nominations are moving through the confirmation process in tandem.

Svinicki is a Republican who has already served one five-year term on the commission. During her term of service, she’s managed to make a few enemies in the Democratic Party, including Boxer and Nevada Sen. Harry Reid.

“I’m not supporting your renomination and I don’t have to go through it again,” Boxer told Svinicki on Wednesday.

Boxer quoted a letter from nuclear safety advocates accusing Svinicki of “uniformly voting for nuclear industry interests at the expense of American public health and safety.”

Boxer’s opposition will not be enough to stymie Svinicki’s nomination, however, especially since there are Democrats on the committee who have committed to supporting her.

Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, a Democrat, refuted Boxer’s charge Wednesday, describing Svinicki as “knowledgeable, hard-working and committed to safety.”

Carper was one of a handful of senators who asked Svinicki and Macfarlane to answer questions about the future of Yucca Mountain and nuclear storage.

Both agreed it was prudent to start looking for other repository sites, regardless of where they stood on Yucca. Svinicki supports its development as a nuclear waste repository, while Macfarlane does not.

Macfarlane endorses the idea of deep underground waste storage.

“The U.S. is the only country with an operating deep geologic repository, and that is in the great state of New Mexico,” Macfarlane said. “The local community and the state...are very supportive of this. So it can work. And it’s worked within our country.”

If confirmed, Macfarlane pledged to reach out to other commissioners to promote a “collegial” atmosphere — tacit acknowledgement of the breakdown in relations that has splintered trust at the NRC over the last year.

But at least one senator will be looking for Macfarlane to take steps to restore trust between the NRC and the public by ending the commission’s practice of voting in private and issuing written opinions.

The practice has caused confusion, especially concerning decisions over licensing at Yucca Mountain.

Commissioners are not required to make their votes public. Instead of delivering straight yea or nay votes, they release long written opinions that can obfuscate their position.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democrat-leaning independent, asked Macfarlane to institute a “transparent, public voting process.”

“The current situation is opaque. The public does not understand how NRC members are voting, and that has got to change,” Sanders said, promising to file legislation to force public voting if the NRC doesn’t change the practice. “I’m asking for the radical idea that you raise your hand in public and tell the American people whether you voted yes or no.”

The committee is expected to vote on the nominations of Svinicki and Macfarlane in the next week or so. Boxer and other senators said Wednesday that they would like to move the process along swiftly and complete the confirmation process by June 30 so that there are no vacancies at the NRC.

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  1. Nicely done and comprehensive reporting!

    What makes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission unique among federal agencies is its political independence, as reflected in its decision process. Administrative law judges make decisions regarding licenses for facilities that are based on fact and on law. Those decisions are reviewed by the 5-member Commission, and can be left to stand as final rulings or overturned by the Commission. In turn, these rulings can be challenged in court.

    The suggestion that Commisioners ought to vote on technical matters in a public setting with a 'yea' or 'nay' vote as is done in Congress would insert factional public opinion directly into the decision-making process. When the Commission calls a public meeting, don't get the idea that a random selection of the American public shows up.

    It is always a self-selected cadre of persons who have strong feelings about the issues being decided. Subjecting technical decision-making to this type of public participatory scrutiny runs the risk of making Commission arguments into addresses to impress their 'public' and their deliberations could become as meaningless or as politically manipulative as the speeches that are often given in Congressional chambers.

    The practice of releasing the often detailed and nuanced opinions of the Commissioners is transparent enough. If it is difficult to tease out of them whether they said 'yea' or 'nay' it is perhaps because they see the merits of both sides of an argument and just lean in one direction or the other and hint that with some additional assurances on some point they could go one way or the other. But the final votes are made public.

    There is a very good reason for the Commission being composed of APPOINTED, NOT ELECTED members. That reason is to remove them one step from direct public influence (always meaning special interest groups within the public). The matters decided by the Commission involve very complex physics, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, geology and biology issues. The interdisciplinary issues under consideration, and the nature of the data and other evidence considered, would be hard to describe to the public in a way that a non-scientist or non-engineer would understand.

    To characterize any one decision as a vote 'for or against safety' as is often done in the media and by special interest groups is in almost all instances a ludicrous oversimplification, a self-serving interpretation, or an attempt to tarnish the public view of a specific Commissioner or of the Commission as a whole. It is a way to put 'public' pressure into a process specifically designed to be free of that sort of pressure.

    Opening the Commission's decision-making process directly to the public, as suggested by one participant in yesterday's hearing is a very bad suggestion. In my very personal opinion.