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September 2, 2014

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Lawmakers confirm nominations to Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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Dennis Cook / AP

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.

After a year of unprecedented drama about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, punctuated by two inspector general reports, at least six congressional hearings and one resignation, the Senate brought the era to a close with a chorus of procedural Kumbaya.

Lawmakers agreed by unanimous consent to confirm the nominations of Allison Macfarlane, tapped by President Barack Obama to take over the chairmanship of the NRC, and Kristine Svinicki, a Republican Commissioner whose first term on the NRC was set to expire this weekend.

Svinicki will serve a five-year term on the NRC; Macfarlane will complete the one-year term for the current chairmanship.

The five-member NRC spent the last few years bitterly split over several high-profile issues, from Yucca Mountain to the U.S. response to the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant meltdown in Japan.

Then last June, the inspector general for the NRC released a report documenting alarming allegations that NRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko had been boxing commissioners out of his decision-making processes and speaking derisively to female members of the 4,000-member staff.

The management and personnel complaints quickly touched off an ugly round of political fighting that embroiled the NRC, Congress and the White House.

Republicans accused Jaczko, a former employee of Sen. Harry Reid, of manipulating the committee in ways that would please his former boss — among them, overseeing the NRC’s decision to stop the licensing process of Yucca Mountain after Congress cut the program’s funding.

Reid and other Jaczko supporters lashed back, accusing Jaczko’s Republican detractors and other commissioners of being so deeply in the pocket of the nuclear industry that they’d trumped up charges to oust Jaczko because he was committed to safety.

After months of high-stakes wrangling, Jackzo announced his resignation, pending approval of a replacement, in mid-May, one month before the NRC’s inspector general released another report documenting at least 15 instances when he engaged in the objectionable management behavior he’d been accused of.

Macfarlane, a nuclear expert who does not have any management experience of note, now takes the reins of the NRC.

Until now, Macfarlane has worked as a professor of environmental science and served as a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Nuclear Waste Management, which recommended earlier this year that the federal government take a more cooperative approach with states in which they hope to site a nuclear waste repository.

Prior to that, Macfarlane had written extensively about Yucca Mountain and how it was problematic as a repository site.

She was inducted into the NRC alongside Svinicki, a supporter of Yucca Mountain.

Reid has long opposed Svinicki for her endorsement and the work she’s done to advance the Yucca Mountain project, something he claims she lied about in her 2007 committee vetting when being confirmed to her first term.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, who runs the committee in question, has also opposed Svinicki, telling her in so many words that she would not vote to confirm her for a second term on the NRC.

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and his 2012 rival Rep. Shelley Berkley — who does not vote on such nominations as a member of the House — both staunch opponents of developing Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository, also opposed Svinicki’s nomination and supported Macfarlane’s.

None of the aforementioned senators raised an objection to Svinicki’s candidacy, however, and no Republicans — even those that favor moving forward on Yucca — lodged an objection against Macfarlane, allowing both to move through as a pair.

“I am pleased that the Senate quickly confirmed Dr. Allison Macfarlane as the next chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Her experience and focus on the safety and security of all Americans will serve the Commission well,” Reid said.

He did not mention Svinicki.

Reid offered a farewell to Jaczko, whose NRC service was terminated with this voice vote. With it, Reid staged one final defense of Jaczko’s legacy.

“I also would like to thank Chairman Greg Jaczko for his steadfast commitment to the safety and security of our nation’s nuclear facilities,” Reid said. “His leadership during the Fukushima nuclear crisis was instrumental in ensuring our nation’s safety in the wake of that disaster. He has served our nation honorably.”

Macfarlane serves until June 30, 2013, and Svinicki’s term ends June 30, 2017.

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