Questions the Senate Should Ask NRC Nominee Allison Macfarlane

Jack Spencer /

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing tomorrow on the nomination of Allison Macfarlane and the re-nomination of Kristine Svinicki to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Though questioning of both nominees is important, Svinicki has already gone through one confirmation hearing and numerous other oversight hearings and has ably served one term as a commissioner. By any reasonable standard, she meets the qualifications to serve another term.

Much less is known about Macfarlane. Thus, even under normal circumstances, one should expect a more thorough vetting of Macfarlane. But this nomination is not occurring under normal circumstances. Consider that Macfarlane is:

None of this, however, is to suggest that Macfarlane is not qualified to lead the NRC; it is merely to point out that the Senate has an even greater obligation to ensure that the nominee is fully vetted before giving its advice and consent to her nomination.

To that end, there are four areas of questioning that the committee should investigate.

1. How Will Past Public Policy Positions Impact Her Work as Chairman?

Whether real or perceived, many believe that resigning NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko allowed his policy positions, especially on Yucca Mountain, to influence his decision making at the NRC. Thus, the committee should ask Macfarlane and series of questions related to her views on how political positions should impact the role of a regulator, such as:

2. Recent Court Decisions That Impact the NRC

On June 1, 2012, a federal appeals court ruled that the Department of Energy provided no justification for continuing to collect $750 million per year from nuclear utilities for nuclear waste disposal activities. The ruling makes sense, since the U.S. government has no waste disposal program. Then last Friday, the same court threw out the NRC’s waste confidence rule that allows nuclear plants to store their waste on site without doing site-specific environmental impact analyses.

Related to these rulings, the committee should consider asking Macfarlane the following:

3. On Yucca Mountain

The source of much of the controversy plaguing the NRC in recent years is the Administration’s handling of the Yucca Mountain program. Simply put, the Administration’s choice to ignore the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and proceed to terminate the Yucca program without either a backup plan or any technical justification is what caused much controversy at the NRC. Thus, knowing Macfarlane’s views on the subject is critical. Some possible questions might include:

4. Licensing New Reactors

One of the most important roles that the NRC will have in the coming years is preparing to effectively and efficiently regulate a growing and technologically diversifying nuclear industry. Maintaining the NRC’s high standards for safety oversight while expanding its capacity to regulate an evolving industry will be paramount. Questions to help better understand how Macfarlane may handle these issues include:

Good Leadership Needed

The NRC desperately needs good leadership following the controversial chairmanship and sudden resignation of Jaczko. Thorough questioning from the committee can help America know that is what it is getting with Macfarlane.