Obama makes his regulatory choice

25 May 2012

Environmental science and policy professor Allison Macfarlane has been nominated by the US President to replace Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) chairman Gregory Jaczko.

Macfarlane has been an associate professor at George Mason University in Virginia since 2006, where her research has focused on environmental policy and international security issues associated with nuclear energy, especially the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle. She served on the White House's Blue Ribbon Commission, established in 2010 to identify a new long-term strategy for managing radioactive waste and used nuclear fuel after President Barack Obama's administration decided to abort the Yucca Mountain repository project.

The NRC is headed by five commissioners appointed by the president, and confirmed by the Senate. The president also designates one commissioner to be chairman and thereby take a role as principal executive officer and also as the official spokesman of the NRC. The chairman's actions are governed by the general policies of the commission, but he or she has ultimate authority for all NRC functions pertaining to an emergency involving an NRC licencee. Incumbent NRC chairman Jaczko announced his resignation from the post earlier this week, but will continue to serve until a successor is in place.

Since graduating with a PhD in geology from Massacusetts Institute of Technology in 1992, Macfarlane's academic career has involved positions at various top US universities. She is chair of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a publication established in 1945 by scientists, engineers, and other experts involved in the Manhattan Project, which aims to inform the public about threats to the survival and development of humanity from nuclear weapons, climate change and other emerging technologies.

Marv Fertel, president and CEO of US nuclear industry organisation the Nuclear Energy Institute, noted Macfarlane's role as an active contributor to policy debates in the nuclear energy field for many years. He urged the Senate to expedite its confirmation of her appointment, as well as the re-appointment of NRC commissioner Kristine Svinicki, whose term is due to expire. "Given the importance of having a fully functioning, five-member commission to carry out the NRC's safety mission, the nuclear energy industry urges the administration to submit her confirmation paperwork as expeditiously as possible. It would not serve the public interest to have her nomination linger," he said.

Political football

It is widely recognised that a nuclear regulator needs to be independent of both industry and politics: The International Atomic Energy Agency's 12-point action plan on safety drawn up in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident stressed the importance of each country having a genuinely independent and adequately resourced nuclear regulator. The necessity for regulatory independence has also been formally remarked on by the European Commission in recent months and there are plans to make the condition of regulatory independence legally binding on the EU's 27 member states.

The degree of independence of the US regulator has long been seen as an area for concern by some. Prior to his own nomination to the NRC, Jaczko had worked for Nevada senator Harry Reid, an outspoken critic of Yucca Mountain, and Massachusetts senator Edward Markey. Both senators were quick to praise Obama's choice of his replacement. In a statement, Reid described Macfarlane as "eminently qualified to lead the NRC for the forseeable future" but said he had "grave concerns" over Commissioner Kristine Svinicki. Markey expressed his belief that Macfarlane would "keep alight the torch of safety Chairman Jaczko has carried for so many years."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News