New nuke watchdog named

In a surprise move, President Obama acted quickly to fill the chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the wake of Gregory Jaczko’s resignation. Obama nominated nuclear proliferation expert Allison Macfarlane, known as a skeptic of the proposal to store high level nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

Macfarlane is not a nuclear physicist or engineer, which caused heartburn for some in those fields. But besides her nonproliferation credentials, she has a doctorate in geology, which is relevant to deep geologic storage of high level waste, including spent fuel.

Macfarlane is the editor of a study of Yucca, Uncertainty Underground, containing chapters by 32 scientists, including one by Macfarlane herself. The book has sections on the hydrology of the mountain, the thermohydrology, the earth science, the forms in which waste can be stored, packaging for storage, uncertainties and U.S. nuclear waste policy (“Dump junkets” June 8, 2006).

One of the authors in the book— University of Nevada, Las Vegas geology professor Jean Cline—said she has not interacted recently with Macfarlane but “in the past I found her to be an excellent geologist with a broad background, who communicated well and who interacted well with people on all sides of the issues. I know that she has continued to be closely involved in nuclear waste issues for many years now, including from the perspective of trying to resolve nuclear waste storage. For these reasons I expect she is an excellent choice to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

Macfarlane also served on a presidential Commission on America’s Nuclear Future and is an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University in Virginia.

Three Republican members of the U.S. House energy committee said in a prepared statement, “The president’s choice in Allison Macfarlane, an outspoken opponent of Yucca Mountain, underscores the Obama administration’s misplaced priorities when it comes to nuclear policy.” They accused Obama of having a Yucca Mountain litmus test for NRC nominees.

“The President has made clear that we need a strong NRC, and he believes Allison Macfarlane is the right person to lead the Commission,” said White House spokesperson Clark Stevens.

Nuclear Energy Institute’s president and chief executive officer, Marvin Fertel, called for quick action on the nominations of Macfarlane and Kristine Svinicki, who is being nominated to a second term as commissioner.

“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,” said Fertel. “It would not serve the public interest to have her nomination linger with the term of … Svinicki set to expire at the end of June.”

The two nominations were made together, in keeping with an informal practice of presenting nominees from the majority and minority parties together for confirmation by the Senate.