Allison Macfarlane, the geologist and expert on atomic waste picked to lead the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is described by associates as someone who can advocate positions without offending her opponents.
“She’s extremely friendly, affable and modest,” Andrew Light, a colleague on the faculty at George Mason University, said in an interview.
Such collegiality may help Macfarlane run the nuclear safety agency, replacing Gregory Jaczko, who resigned amid allegations from colleagues that he bullied staff and humiliated female employees. Jaczko, who has denied the accusations, said he will leave when a successor is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
A geologist by training, Macfarlane, 48, is an expert on the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, a critical issue as the industry lacks a permanent waste site. She has questioned the suitability of Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a proposed dump site, and helped research a paper backing “dry cask” storage at power plants, which industry opposes. Former NRC employees raised concerns that she lacked broad nuclear-power experience.
“The core of her expertise is on spent fuel and geologic disposal issues,” said Frank von Hippel, professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University, who has contributed to papers on nuclear waste with Macfarlane.
Those who know Macfarlane called her a forceful advocate of her positions. Colleagues at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where she has taught environmental science since 2006, describe her as collegial.
“She’s a very thoughtful, very intelligent, very expressive person,” said Robert Jonas, chairman of George Mason’s environmental sciences department.
She didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
President Barack Obama on May 24 said he intended to nominate Macfarlane to replace Jaczko, 41. Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman, called her a “highly regarded expert” who “spent years analyzing nuclear issues.”
A potential impediment to confirmation was cleared away when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and Yucca opponent, said he would advance Macfarlane along with the re-nomination of Kristine Svinicki, who joined during the George W. Bush administration and is backed by Republicans. Her term ends in June.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based group whose members include Exelon Corp. of Chicago, Southern Co. of Atlanta and Entergy Corp. of New Orleans, endorsed Macfarlane, urging Congress to approve Macfarlane and Svinicki.
The nuclear industry may disagree with her on handling the nation’s spent fuel. Macfarlane’s 2006 book, “Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste,” examined technical issues facing the waste-disposal site.
“She is a critic of Yucca Mountain,” said Light, also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning think tank in Washington.
Some former agency officials questioned whether Macfarlane’s skills match the challenges as the panel conducts a top-down review of safety rules for the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors.
“She doesn’t have a background in nuclear power or reactor-safety issues,” Paul Dickman, a chief of staff to former NRC Chairman Dale Klein, said in a phone interview.
That may be a “hindrance in her ability to understand the work of the commission,” he said.
Klein, in an interview, questioned whether Macfarlane had sufficient management experience to take over a commission with more than 4,000 employees. Leading the NRC is not a place for “on-the-job training,” he said.
The five-member commission needs someone who is “credible, independent, in the middle,” Michael Wallace, senior adviser for the U.S. Nuclear Energy Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said in a phone interview
Macfarlane was on Obama’s 15-person Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which issued a final report in January. During deliberations, she advocated more vigorous safety reviews for nuclear-waste storage sites, said Per Peterson, chairman of the nuclear engineering department at the University of California at Berkeley and a fellow panel member.
“She does have good interpersonal skills,” Peterson said in an interview. “My expectation is she will be a positive force in terms of how she manages the commission.”
Macfarlane also is “very methodical” and a “fair arbiter of the positions on both sides,” as shown during her experience with the Blue Ribbon Commission, Light said.
Von Hippel and Macfarlane were two of eight writers of a 2003 academic paper warning that “dense packing” of spent fuel rods in cooling pools increased the possibility of a meltdown in an accident.
The nuclear-power industry has resisted accelerating the transfer of spent fuel rods to so-called dry casks as an unwarranted expense.
Dispersing the fuel rods would let more air circulate between each, should the cooling pool lose water, von Hippel said. While not eliminating the possibility a meltdown altogether, he said greater air flow would reduce the risks.
The von Hippel-Macfarlane paper recommended all fuel rods more than five years old be air-cooled in dry casks, he said. Now some spent rods can sit in pools for two decades or longer, he said.
“Utilities think about it relative to their bottom lines and view it as something to be avoided if at all possible,” he said.
Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the nuclear group, said “there is no safety basis to dictate movement into dry storage.” The 2003 article prompted a rebuttal from the NRC, which said it overstated the risks of “wet storage.”
Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, where Macfarlane was a fellow, described the nominee as a good colleague who wasn’t motivated by ideology.
“She’s very factually oriented,” Allison said in an interview. “That’s the thing about scientists. If the facts change, they change their minds.”