The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced on Dec. 23 that Stephen G. Burns will replace Allison Macfarlane as chairman, effective Jan. 1, 2015.

Burns, a 33-year veteran of the agency—became a commissioner in November. He began his career at the NRC as an attorney in the Regional Operations and Enforcement division in 1978, later serving as general counsel from 2009 to 2012 during Gregory Jaczko’s term as chairman.

Burns left the agency to become the head of legal affairs of the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in April 2012. He will become the NRC’s 16th chairman when he succeeds Macfarlane.

Macfarlane announced her decision to step down on Oct. 21. She will be taking a position at George Washington University.

The NRC offers several challenges for Burns to navigate. Completion of the safety evaluation report for the Yucca Mountain permanent nuclear waste repository is expected by the end of January 2015, but that will not end debate on the stalled project. In addition, members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works probed NRC commissioners extensively about purported seismic safety problems at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant during a December hearing, which may continue to produce controversy for the agency. And while Macfarlane claims to have accomplished “key objectives” in implementing lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, there is still much left to be done to safeguard U.S. plants from a similar disaster.

Cybersecurity at nuclear facilities is also likely to fall under the microscope in the near future, following revelations that Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. computer systems were hacked last week. Although the company claims that there has been no effect on nuclear safety, the breach still shows vulnerability, and questions will be asked about the possibility of similar incidents occurring on U.S. soil.

Burns appears ready to accept the challenge. “I am pleased to have been selected to serve as the NRC’s next chairman. It is a great honor to lead the agency to which I dedicated most of my professional career,” he said in a statement announcing his selection. “I extend my thanks to Dr. Macfarlane for her service and wish her success in her new position. I look forward to working with my fellow commissioners, the NRC staff, and our stakeholders in carrying out the NRC’s important mission.”

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)