Atomic ‘Agnostic’ Named for U.S. NRC Ties Industry Growth to Aid

Allison Macfarlane
Concerns over Allison Macfarlane’s experience and positions on nuclear energy issues may strenghten this week as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is scheduled for a hearing on her nomination on June 13. Photo: Evan Cantwell/George Mason University via Bloomberg

President Barack Obama’s pick to head the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said atomic power can’t grow without government subsidies, criticized an industry-supported plan to dispose of spent fuel in Nevada, and said she was drawn to nuclear research because she got bored with geology.

“I would describe myself as agnostic; I’m neither pro-nuclear nor anti-nuclear,” Allison Macfarlane said in a June 2007 interview for the Atomic Show on The Podcast Network. “We’re not going to see a large expansion of nuclear power in this country unless there is a lot of government subsidy.”

Though Macfarlane has declined interview requests since Obama nominated her to be chairman of the NRC, she has expressed opinions in academic work and public appearances -- including some that are at odds with the industry. She may face questions about them on June 13 at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee confirmation hearing on the NRC nominations.

Obama announced on May 24 his selection of Macfarlane, 48, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents companies such as Exelon Corp. and NextEra Energy Inc., in a statement called her “an active contributor to policy debates.”

Carbon Tax

Asked last week about her past positions, the NEI referred to its May 24 statement, in which the Washington-based group congratulated Macfarlane and urged the Senate to expedite the confirmation. She didn’t return messages left at her office and home seeking comment.

“I don’t think nuclear is competitive in a free-market economy, unless there’s some kind of carbon tax or, you know, unless coal plants are required to be built with carbon sequestration,” she said in the 2007 pod cast.

Macfarlane, who holds a doctorate in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been critical of the U.S. approach to spent nuclear fuel, a key issue for the industry, which lacks a permanent site for waste. She served on a presidential commission that issued a report in January calling for the designation of a central, temporary storage site while a search is conducted for one or more permanent facilities in communities that agree to host them.

In a 2005 opinion essay in the Boston Globe, she said “the nation has a nuclear-waste crisis,” and later criticized the proposed Yucca Mountain site for nuclear-waste disposal.

Yucca Abandoned

The Obama administration abandoned Yucca after decades of study and preparation that cost $15 billion. Opposition to the project, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas, was led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

“Yucca Mountain violates one of the main criteria of siting a nuclear-waste repository, which is that you find a geologically stable location and Yucca Mountain is neither seismically nor volcanically stable,” she told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during a March 1, 2006, hearing.

She declined to name sites she would prefer when asked by Senator Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, during the hearing.

A 2006 book Macfarlane edited, “Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste,” examined technical issues of atomic waste disposal.

The process of picking Yucca, “broke the covenant with the states that the siting process would be fair and the best site would be selected,” she wrote in 2006 in the academic journal Innovations.

Dry Casks

She was a co-author of another academic paper in the journal Science & Global Security in 2003 that recommended spent fuel rods more than five years old be air-cooled in dry casks. The nuclear-power industry has resisted accelerating the transfer of spent rods to so-called dry casks as an unwarranted expense.

More recently, Macfarlane said Congress is spending fees collected from nuclear utilities that should be set aside for a waste repository “for other things, just as it did with the Social Security,” according to a video of her October 2011 speech at the Elliot School for International Affairs, George Washington University in Washington.

Reid said in a statement following Obama’s nomination announcement that Macfarlane “will make preserving the safety and security of American citizens her top priority.”

Criticism of Macfarlane has been muted as Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, coupled Obama’s selection of Macfarlane with the renomination of Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, who joined the panel in 2008 during George W. Bush’s administration.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a May 24 interview that he didn’t anticipate Republicans would block a vote on Macfarlane, as long as Democratic leaders consider the nomination “in tandem” with Svinicki.

If confirmed, Macfarlane would replace Gregory Jaczko. He was criticized by colleagues for bullying the staff, and by the industry for speeding up the agenda for additional safety regulations after the triple-meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in March 2011.

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