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Yucca critic named to head nuclear regulatory agency

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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.

Updated Thursday, May 24, 2012 | 2:46 p.m.

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

President Barack Obama nominated a successor to outgoing Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko on Thursday, selecting an alumna of the Blue Ribbon Commission that recently issued findings on how the country should dispose of its nuclear waste.

Allison Macfarlane is a professor at George Mason University in northern Virginia who has written extensively about Yucca Mountain, in addition to serving on the panel the president created to explore how the country should dispose of its nuclear waste. Earlier this year, the panel recommended the country should establish a national, permanent waste disposal site, but not foist it upon an unwilling locale.

A White House spokesman said Obama believes Macfarlane is the right person to lead the commission, calling her a highly regarded expert who has spent years analyzing nuclear issues.

Macfarlane "understands the role that nuclear power must play in our nation's energy future while ensuring that we are always taking steps to produce this important energy source safely and securely," White House spokesman Clark Stevens said.

Stevens called the NRC crucial to protecting public health and safety and said Obama hopes the Senate considers her nomination quickly.

Sen. Harry Reid spoke highly of Macfarlane on Thursday and said that he would like her nomination to move through the Senate confirmation process alongside Republican Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, who Reid said he continues to “have grave concerns about.”

Macfarlane has never served on the commission before. She would replace Jaczko, whose rocky tenure drew caustic accusations from his fellow commissioners that he manipulated NRC processes to achieve political ends, boxed out his colleagues, and spoke derisively toward women.

Svinicki, a former Department of Energy employee and aide to Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, is coming up on the end of her first five-year term of service on the commission.

Macfarlane is a geologist by training. Of particular note to Nevadans will be her background dealing with nuclear waste repository issues.

While she didn’t address the viability of Yucca Mountain in her term of service on the Blue Ribbon Commission, MacFarlane did make her doubts public in a 2006 book she wrote called “Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste” which detailed “unresolved technical issues” at the site.

Macfarlane did not immediately respond to interview requests. Reid spoke highly of her as a nominee.

“I am confident that like her predecessor, Dr. Allison Macfarlane will make preserving the safety and security of American citizens her top priority,” Reid said in a written statement. “The nuclear industry has a perfect opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to safety by supporting Dr. Macfarlane’s nomination.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, called Macfarlane "an active contributor to policy debates in the nuclear energy field for many years" and urged the Senate to confirm her nomination as soon as possible.

"It would not serve the public interest to have her nomination linger," the group said. "We urge the Senate to confirm both Commissioner Svinicki and Professor Macfarlane expeditiously."

If things move along the schedule Reid laid out Thursday, both Macfarlane and Svinicki’s nominations would be considered in the next month. Svinicki’s term ends on June 30.

Both must be approved by the Environment and Public Works committee before heading to a confirmation vote by the full Senate.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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  1. The choice of photos for this article is unfortunate. Professor Macfarlane ought to have been shown in a more neutral context.

    Although I never really saw eye to eye with Professor Mcfarlane on Yucca Mountain issues, I still respected her because she was coming from a credible point of view that asked if this was the best site, or even a smart choice, for the nation. Her point of view was "no," it was neither the best nor even smart. But the charge from Congress, by law, was to essentially answer this question: "can it be done safely here?" The answer by DOE, each time it was asked, was "yes, and here is what it will cost."

    The question of best or smart was answered by Congress in the 1987 Amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act ("the Screw Nevada Bill").

    But that is all water under the bridge of time and politics, and it is time to move on and fix the stress- corrosion-cracks in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In terms of her personality and style of dealing with people I believe Professor Macfarlane will bring peace to the 5-member Commission itself, and let the Commission staff stop grinding their teeth and get back to doing the work they typically do very well, in my opinion.

    The NRC does a lot more than judge license applications and perform nuclear installation inspections. They also contribute to the world-wide attitude and approach to assuring nuclear safety, and are a constructive part of several international organizations that address not just the processes for assuring safety, but they also address the science behind our understanding of what radiation- safety needs to consist of and how it should be evaluated.

    It is a unique group of experts, in other words, with worldwide respect.

    Professor Macfarlane's scientific side will find satisfaction in becoming involved with the science being pursued behind the scenes to assure that future safety regulations are technically correct and protective.

    A well functioning NRC will be welcome news to all "stakeholders," especially the nuclear industry.

  2. @davelv, in response to your first comment, that is why I objected to the photo used, it pigeonholes her as an anti-Yucca person. But her record is broader than that and includes a sound contribution to the work of the BRC, for just one example.

    In response to your second comment, we simply disagree. Look at the commissioners and their backgrounds over the years and you will see many variations in terms of background and experience.

    What the NRC needs is a level head that is smart enough to understand what the NRC technical staff presents in terms of its technical work and its recommendations tot eh commissioners based on the results of that work, and I believe she is fully capable of doing that.

    Having a geologist in that role is no better or worse than having a physicists in that role. What is needed is scientific smarts, sure, but more than that, this job requires heightened leadership and interpersonal (diplomatic) skills. There is a great difference between politely asking a pointed question of someone when you think they may be wrong, and accusing them of stupidity because you know they are wrong. It is that skill-set that I believe Macfarlane will bring to the job.

    But the proof will be in the pudding. Maybe a few years from now you will be able to write "I told you so." But I think not.

  3. Dave, you say that "the BRC was a farce to delay Yucca Mountain and bypass the NWPA. Anyone who participated in it has forfeited their scientific integrity and ethics." In the beginning I would have agreed with you regarding your first sentence, but not the second sentence which is hyperbole.

    As I followed their deliberations I saw that they were, despite your first sentence, doing something useful for the future of the US nuclear industry. As a result of their recommendations (and because of the sorry US economy, I suspect) we now have more than nine states sending official letters asking (in most cases asking it to be kept confidential), if rock in their state can be looked at as a potential candidiate site.

    This is significant, it means the nuclear-waste-repository-stigma is going away, and I place the blame (=praise) for that squarely on the BRC report when it highlighted the repository in New Mexico as a poster-child for how to do this right with both local and state support. It takes little effort for a reporter to learn that the repository near Carlsbad helped economically stabilize this region against the downturn seen just about everywhere else in the country. Housing did not fall in value in this region, and unemployment is low. Other factors also helped, but the repository is popular because it has been a reliable multi-generational source of good paying jobs and revenue.

    Now other states want some of this safe and economically benefical federal action, and the BRC report caused this change of heart. This is good for the nation, in the long run.

    In the short run, Nye County (all the rural Nevada counties) loses out to please urban Nevada.

    This conflict-of-interest between the urban and rural parts of many a state, pitting money and the votes of the many, against the well-being of the few, needs some legal adjustment. The many in the urban areas forget that it is the few in the rural areas who hold the state together and make it a state, and whose land and labor typically provide raw materials and foodstuffs the city-masses depend on to some extent.

    Integrity and ethics go out the window when majorities lord it over minorities, such as when Las Vegas politicians (and other urban representatives) cut Nye County off from a revenue source that can better rural lives, on the basis of technically unjustifiable fears of an apparent threat to their touristic livelihoods from a nuclear transport accident that is almost sure to never happen.

  4. @nemesis: <<But one might see it from a different viewpoint. How does this sound? "There is a conflict between the urban and rural parts of many a state which pits the well being of the many against benefits for the few. Should law favor the few?">>

    The obvious answer is "no," not "favor" -but I think the current system is not balanced to give everyone living in a state with a few power-centers a fair shake. I suppose when the courts get done with the water issues in Nevada there may come some clarity on the rights of the few versus the many? Or, maybe not.

  5. Dave, you say among other things that: <<President Obama and Senator Reid tried to legitimize their violation of the NWPA by creating the BRC filled with people having incredible past credentials. I still believe that everyone should have declined their appointment until the NWPA was changed.>>

    You then go on to lament the failure to follow duly passed law. I tend to favor that opinion too, but am eager to read the opinion(s) that are sure to include this issue, that will be coming from the DC Court of Appeals later this year.

    As to "incredible" past credentials, we do not agree, it was a nice mix of expertise representing many parts of society. This repository siting business ought to involve society-wide decision-making, it ought to involve all aspects of a society and its values, informed by the technical/scientific type of information required to assess potential system safety.

    As to turning down an invitation from a sitting Predident to be on a study committee important to the future of society? Again we disagree. I personally thought a lot of laws were being broken during the Bush years, but had that President asked me to do something like this committee, I would have said yes. On some issues the Bush administration was right on the money, like the repository program, the investment in hydrogen as a transportation fuel, and the 'global nuclear energy partnership.' But democracies are notorious for exactly what the people voted for, which was big change. We got it. For the most part I like it even though it impacted me negatively. But I see a brighter hope for a nuclear rennaisance with the nation now having several volunteer states to investigate for hosting a repository. We need more than one. Nevada is welcome to limp to the back of the line anytime they wish, I'm sure.

  6. 05-25-12 Obama, Reid and the NRC: A logical political appointment is like hitting the lottery, good luck citizens.

    Let's take if from the top. The state of Nevada has been fighting the DOE and NRC in opposition to Yucca Mountain for thirty plus years, why, because the state has never been promised "a cut of the business". The longest serving director of the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects was Bob Loux an appointee with a scholastic degree in "history" he was ousted for wrongdoing. Nevada's next appointment was Mr. Bruce Breslow a TV sports caster moved to another agency to run the Nevada DMV. The current director Robert Halstead has served as transportation adviser to the Agency for Nuclear Projects since 1988, serving in a paid consulting capacity. Does government ever have the capacity to "appoint qualified verses political appointees"?

    The administration is nominating Allison Macfarlane, geologist, a professor of environmental science to serve as chairwoman of the NRC. Her book "Uncertainty Underground" provides an extensive geological review about Yucca Mountain. Ms. Macfarlane also served as member of the Administrations Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future and how to deal with spent nuclear fuel. (The commission was restricted from reviewing Yucca Mountain) so, let's only put "chosen" marbles on the table.

    Half of the public's problem with government is with its "unqualified agency appointees". Such appointments are critical to the national laboratories of our country and for the future they must be made on the basis of science NOT politics. Our concern is that the NRC agency has just suffered through a very tenuous director with Jaczko a nuclear "policy" educator not an industry scientist. Our concern with Ms. Macfarlane is simply logical, her expertise is geology which is fine, but, only one portion of the agency's responsibilities. The NRC's primary mission is nuclear plant design, engineering and operational safety management. 90% of this agencies funding comes from nuclear company's application fees for new plant designs, license renewals, extensions, etc. And now there is a whole new realm of nuclear development with (SMRs) Small Modular Reactors. Although plant sightings involve geological study, that is not the major focus of this agency. We must strive to separate science from politics, even more critical with our national laboratories and science agencies.

  7. Pete: <<As for other states "confidentially" requesting consideration as a storage site for nuclear waste... Abe, give it a rest. Accepting a cushy job in Carlsbad does not justify campaigning for a site that has not submitted a license application to store spent nuclear fuel.>>

    The number of states that have given indications of interest is up to 9, or so I have been told by a person I consider a reliable source. I am aware of just one whose letter from the Governor to the Secretary has been made public, and that is New Mexico. I am not campaigning, the city of Carlsbad is, with support from the state.

    The point I made as far back as 2002 on MSNBC, much to the chagrin of my managers, was that Yucca would be safe, no question about it, but expensive, and it makes greater sense to get away from oxygen and water in a repository in shale/clay (I said the Pierre Shale of the Dakotas was my favorite in 2002, but there is much more clay and shale in this country, and I add salt now because it is just as good, maybe even a bit better, for getting away from moving water and oxygen).

    Plus by burying valuable metals with the waste, metals that can withstand that oxygen very well for hundreds of thousands of years, one is creating an attractive nuisance for the far future when these metals may become very expensive and spent fuel has stopped emitting gamma rays making it no longer self-protecting.

    Yucca would be safe for a million years, the NRC staff agreed with the reasonableness of the license application's claims. But is it really the best choice for the nation? That is a societal decision that should be made, supported by science, in a fully open discussion between affected jurisdictions, as the BRC suggests.

    The way Yucca was selected in 1987 was a cowardly act by Congress, MSNBC quoted me on saying that too, back in 2002. Sure 'it is the law,' but reading that 1987 amendment to the 1982 law pulled all remnants of my grade-school-civics idealism right out of my head. It was an incredibly poor and incredibly self-serving piece of legislation.

    I rest my case: a holiday weekend has just begun and that has higher priority.