U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Allison Macfarlane, in her first public meeting with agency staff, ruled out furloughs or salary cuts as a result of looming federal spending reductions to close a budget deficit.
“There’s a potential for significant budget reductions under sequestration,” as the cuts are known, Macfarlane said yesterday during the meeting in Rockville, Maryland. Commissioners didn’t speculate as to how individual agency programs may be affected, and Macfarlane declined to answer questions after the meeting.
The NRC budget is more than $1 billion, with about 90 percent recovered from fees on reactor owners. The Congress- approved spending would be cut about $85 million, or 8.2 percent, under the the law passed to cut the deficit, according to a September report from the White House Office of Management and Budget. Lawmakers can still vote to avert the reductions.
The meeting, at a hotel across the street from NRC headquarters, gave employees a chance to question the five commissioners on issues, including budget cuts and the agency’s licensing schedule. Macfarlane used the meeting to distance herself from Gregory Jaczko, who quit as chairman this year after colleagues criticized his management style and said he bullied staff. Jaczko has rejected the accusations.
“I come here as a writer, a scientist and as a professor,” said Macfarlane, a former professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. She said it’s important for her to ask tough questions and to challenge conventional wisdom. “You need to do this to reach new insights.”
While Macfarlane, who joined the agency in July, said she thinks the NRC’s budget is generally “managed well,” Commissioner Kristine Svinicki said there is room for “substantial improvement.” Svinicki didn’t say what changes should be made.
In addition to dealing with possible budget constraints, the NRC is considering new regulations in response to a triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in Japan after a 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Three of the 104 U.S. operating reactors shut last week during Hurricane Sandy, and a fourth, Exelon Corp. (EXC)’s Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, declared an alert and remains off line.
Macfarlane said she is focused on consideration of the Fukushima-related rules and how natural disasters including flooding may affect nuclear regulation.
“We need to be proactive in understanding how the earth is changing,” she said.
Svinicki said attendance appeared at yesterday’s meeting to be higher than in recent years.
Commissioner George Apostolakis, a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, praised Macfarlane’s academic credentials.
“I can assure you the commission now is in great shape, and we love each other,” he said to laughter.
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