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Change ahead at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?

Today, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted to confirm Allison Macfarlane as the new chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Republican Kristine Svinicki to serve a second five-year term on the commission. The full Senate is sure to follow suit. But with their confirmations secure, many questions still remain.

Can Macfarlane restore harmony at the NRC?

Macfarlane’s nomination came in the wake of commission chair Gregory Jaczko’s resignation.  His announcement on May 21 may help bring closure to an ugly period of upheaval at the NRC, but it also illustrates a disturbing precedent. In October, Jaczko’s fellow commissioners, in a letter to the White House, alleged that Jaczko had bullied and intimidated staff. The letter resulted in an internal investigation and several congressional hearings to scrutinize Jaczko’s commission leadership and management. While the allegations have not been substantiated, Jaczko’s history of standing up to the nuclear industry and strong safety voting record suggest an orchestrated effort to remove Jaczko from the NRC.

Can Macfarlane restore harmony at the NRC? During her opening remarks at last week’s confirmation hearing, Macfarlane said she will push to “make the agency more open, efficient and transparent.” Later she promised “a strong commitment to collegiality at all levels,” saying an agency empowered to protect public safety, such as the NRC, “requires a respectful working environment to assure its integrity.”

Would Svinicki have been confirmed independent of Macfarlane?

Svinicki’s reappointment comes just days before the expiration of her first term.  The strong opposition of the clean-energy community and Democratic leadership to a second term could have held up her re-nomination; however Democratic opposition to Svinicki was defused by Republicans’ agreement to approve Macfarlane’s appointment. This type of political horse trading has no place in determining the body of regulators responsible for maintaining the highest possible protection for the public against the dangerous of nuclear power.

Clean-energy advocates’ opposition to Svinicki’s re-nomination is well founded. Commissioner Svinicki has repeatedly voted against safety measures that could have improved protection for both the public and environment. She has not earned a second term and therefore should not be allowed to retain her position as part of negotiated deal. The stakes are too high.

Will Svinicki continue to block safety reforms?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is still in the process of implementing recommendations made by Near-Term Task Force on Fukushima. In December, Svinicki voted against the task force’s   recommendation to consider all the post-Fukushima safety upgrades to be mandatory for the “adequate protection” of nuclear power plants.  Svinicki’s pro-industry voting record after the past five years, including impeding implementation of post-Fukushima safety reforms, does not  provide confidence that the commissioner will support the necessary reforms to improve nuclear safety.

New leadership at the NRC will be tasked with not only implementing the lessons learned from the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, but boosting public trust in an agency responsible for safeguarding our nuclear fleet. Returning Svinicki to the commission would impede these critical goals.

While it remains to be seen what kind of commissioner she will be, Allison Macfarlane’s experience in the field of nuclear safety and waste management makes her a good candidate to lead the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. On the other hand, we already have seen the poor performance of Commissioner Svinicki. She still has a lot to answer for.

Photo courtesy of NRCgov