All indications from Wednesday’s Senate Environment and Public Works Committee joint hearing are that Dr. Alison Macfarlane will been confirmed as the new chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and that Commissioner Kristine Svinicki will be approved for a second term. Macfarlane, a nuclear waste expert who served on the White House’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, was nominated by President Barack Obama last month after Chairman Gregory Jaczko, whose leadership style was described by commissioners from both political parties as abusive, resigned May 21.

Jaczko, who had previously served as an aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) led the commission during a tumultuous period for the U.S. nuclear power industry. Challenges during his tenure included withdrawal of Yucca Mountain as the designated long-term nuclear waste storage facility, legal battles concerning that decision by the administration, a blue ribbon commission study of alternatives to Yucca Mountain, the 2011 Japanese nuclear crisis, controversy over plant relicensing, and an earthquake in Virginia last year that shut down the North Anna plant, located near the quake’s epicenter, for inspection.

Jaczko said he would step down as soon as his successor is confirmed to complete his term, which runs until June 2013.

Macfarlane is an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University and holds a PhD in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to her faculty profile page, she has been a Social Science Research Council-MacArthur Foundation fellow in International Peace and Security, served on National Academy of Sciences panels on nuclear energy and nuclear weapons issues, and chaired the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 

Macfarlane has previously described herself as neither pro-nuclear nor anti-nuclear. Though she has noted that objections to using Yucca Mountain as a permanent nuclear waste storage site have been mostly political, she has also said that the site is inappropriate because the surrounding area is seismically and volcanically active.

Bloomberg Businessweek quoted Per Peterson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California who served with Macfarlane on the blue ribbon commission, as saying, "I think she will be effective in leadership" of the NRC, "mainly because she listens."

The Hill quoted Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) as saying he hoped Macfarlane would be the new Lisa Jackson. Inhofe has described EPA Administrator Jackson as among his "three favorite liberals"—even though they disagree frequently.

Republican Kristine Svinicki, a nuclear engineer who was first nominated by President George W. Bush, was nominated for a second term by President Obama. It has been customary for nominees from both parties to be considered by the Senate for confirmation at the same time.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I.-Vt) asked both nominees if they would support a more open and public NRC voting process. Macfarlane said she would commit to being "as transparent as I can be" but added that she would first need to familiarize herself with current NRC practices and consult with other commissioners. Svinicki gave a less-direct answer, pointing instead to her record regarding that issue, which she said was available on the NRC website.

When questioned by Sen. Ben Cardin (D.-Md.) about the role of long-term onsite storage of spent nuclear fuel (SNF)—a topic that was also in the news this week—Macfarlane replied that her main concern as an NRC commissioner would be with safety at the plants. All reactors need an onsite spent fuel pool, she explained, but after five years, the SNF has cooled enough to be put in dry cask storage. "We know" from the experience at Fukushima and North Anna last year, she said, that "dry casks performed very well." Macfarlane added that we need to understand how dry casks operate over the long term and that, in her view, "we need a national depository," a "deep geological depository" for SNF. 

In closing the hearing, Committee Chair Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) underscored the need for all NRC commissioners to have a good working relationship, even when they disagree on issues. Boxer registered her concern about Svinicki’s candor in answering questions in the past and indicated that she would vote against her confirmation, even though she recognized the commissioner would likely be reconfirmed. Boxer’s closing comment on Macfarlane: "I sense in you the ability to bring people together."

Sources: POWERnews, Businessweek, Bloomberg, George Mason University, The Hill

—Dr. Gail Reitenbach, POWER managing editor (@POWERmagazine)