With Macfarlane Out, Wither the NRC?

President Obama named Allison Macfarlane to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and appointed her chairman in July 2012 largely to restore some calm to the chaos that reigned at the NRC under the chairmanship of Greg Jaczko, whose patron was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Her expertise in nuclear waste issues – a geologist, she served on the “Blue Ribbon Commission” Obama appointed shortly after he pulled the plug on the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada soon after taking office, paying a debt to Reid – also played a role in her appointment, and reappointment in June 2013 to a full five-year term.

Allison Macfarline

Allison Macfarline

She succeeded in restoring calm and collegiality to the fractious NRC. But she had plenty of controversy to deal with during her tenure as the 15th NRC chairman: the regulatory aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the extended outage of the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska after a devastating 2011 flood (the plant returned to service in December under special NRC scrutiny), and the closure of Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, to name a few.

She also faced political pressure from Congress, particularly from Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman Barbara Boxer, who (playing to the home crowd) demanded that the NRC turn over to her every jot and tittle of agency information pertaining to the California plant. At the same time, Republicans and many state regulators kept hammering at the NRC to get on with the review of the Yucca Mountain waste site, although that’s a losing cause as long as Harry Reid is in the Senate and a Democrat is in the White House.

The extent to which Macfarlane largely succeeded is captured in this comment from Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican and ranking minority member on the environment committee: “Considering the NRC’s tumultuous past and the political pressure she was under, Chairman Macfarlane handled a tough leadership situation at the NRC with grace, even as she was pushed to undermine the industry and implement unnecessary regulations.” Then Vitter raised the Reid specter: “It’s vital to the security and reliability of our nation’s energy needs for the members of the NRC to be independent, thoughtful, and highly qualified — and I urge the President to nominate someone with those characteristics, despite certain political pressure from Senator Reid to do otherwise.”

Industry gossip has it that Obama will name a new chairman before Macfarlane leaves in January to head George Washington University’s Center for International Science and Technology Policy. It likely won’t be a nomination, given the difficulties, even under Reid’s “nuclear option” to streamline the process, of getting executive branch nominees confirmed in the Senate.

The president designates a chairman from among the sitting commissioners. The most likely candidate is former NRC general counsel Stephen Burns, who won Senate confirmation as a Democrat to a five-year term in September and is scheduled to be sworn in Nov. 5. Burns has drawn some criticism from Republicans for serving as Jaczko’s general counsel from 2009 to 2012, but he has deep experience with the agency, going back to 1978. He will join newly-appointed commissioner Jeffery Baran, a former aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and two sitting Republican commissioners, Kristine Svinicki and William Ostendorff. One Democratic seat remains vacant.

What role will Harry Reid play in the workings of the new commission? E&E News quoted Mike McKenna, a GOP energy lobbyist and strategist, that Reid “is going to get his guy. And make no mistake, Burns is his guy.” Maybe, but figuring out how NRC commissioners, and particularly chairmen, will operate, is frequently an exercise in guesswork.