Two nominees for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission moved closer to Senate confirmation after lawmakers at a hearing said they were willing to set aside their concerns to support the candidates together.
Allison Macfarlane, a geologist picked to lead the regulatory agency, and Kristine Svinicki, nominated for a second term, fended off criticism yesterday during a two-hour Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.
Republicans said Macfarlane lacked experience to run the 4,000-employee agency and has limited knowledge of nuclear power, and Democrats said Svinicki was keen to back industry operators. Panel members said they will back President Barack Obama’s nominees to keep the commission with five members so it can deal with safety, license renewals and small-reactor projects.
“Although I have some concerns about perhaps a lack of background in management experience, that’s something certainly you should be able to pick up quickly,” Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the panel’s top Republican, told Macfarlane. “I think we all agree that the NRC functions most effectively as a full commission.”
A committee vote on confirming the nominees may occur as soon as next week after Macfarlane and Svinicki answer lawmakers’ written questions. Chairman Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, gave senators until today to submit questions and set June 18 for responses, saying “we are trying to move this forward.”
If confirmed, Macfarlane, 48, would replace Gregory Jaczko, who is quitting after colleagues accused him of bullying the staff. Jaczko has been dissenting from the other four commissioners on granting licenses for new power plants for Southern Co. and Scana Corp. and disagreed with his colleagues on the pace of implementing safety rules after the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor disaster last year in Japan.
“It will be a right thing for us to do both of these nominations and move them together,” Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, said yesterday. Then, speaking to Macfarlane, he said, “I would express that your background is not the kind of background I would normally look for in the chairman of the NRC.”
Macfarlane pledged to be open, efficient, collegial and transparent, and promised to avoid delaying or skipping votes as a way to postpone tough decisions.
She said she met the NRC staff and plans to have open discussions and one-on-one sessions that would help her make decisions on issues she knows little about, such as containment vents at reactors.
Macfarlane cited her work on the 15-member presidential commission on nuclear waste as an evidence of her ability to coordinate and communicate within a group with varied opinions.
Svinicki, sitting alongside Macfarlane, drew a rebuke from Boxer who said the nominee lied about her role in the Yucca Mountain waste site planning, and for opposing a safety investigation of Edison International’s San Onofre nuclear plant in California.
“When I don’t vote for you, commissioner, it’s because I have reasons,” Boxer said. “Despite my opposition, I hope you’ll be confirmed.”
Sessions disputed Boxer’s allegation about Svinicki’s previous comments to the committee.
Senator Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, called Svinicki an advocate for the nuclear-power industry when he said commissioners should be neutral on atomic power.
Republicans said work on Yucca Mountain, a site about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas picked as a U.S. waste site, cost $15 billion before it was rejected by the Obama administration.
Senators said that among issues the NRC should take up after Macfarlane is confirmed are the future of small modular reactors and evacuation plans for facilities such as Entergy Corp.’s Indian Point north of New York City.
“I do believe that under the activities that the NRC is undertaking regarding the Fukushima accident, they are reconsidering the emergency planning zones, and looking at that as well,” Macfarlane said.
Asked about Yucca Mountain as a potential long-term nuclear-waste repository, Macfarlane said that the NRC is responsible for verifying the safety of a potential site, “not making the energy policy.”