Nuclear Regulatory Commission Nominees Appear Headed for Confirmation

Posted June 13, 2012 at 1:36pm

In an effort to bridge a rift on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will vote as soon as next week on two commission nominees, including Allison Macfarlane who has been tapped to become chairman of the agency.

“We are trying to move this forward,” Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said at a hearing on the nominations of Macfarlane and Kristine Svinicki. Boxer asked the nominees to respond to any lingering questions from Senators by Monday.

A Democratic aide said that the committee vote could next week. Both nominees — Macfarlane and Svinicki, who was tapped by the GOP to serve a second term as commissioner of the NRC — are expected to be confirmed by the panel.

Boxer praised Macfarlane, a geologist, who will take over from current Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

Jaczko announced his resignation last month after being accused by the other four commissioners of the bipartisan agency of having a heavy-handed management style — a state of affairs, his detractors contend, that disrupted the NRC’s ability to complete its nuclear-safety mission.

“Dr. Macfarlane you are walking into a tough situation,” Boxer said. “But after meeting with you and watching you here today, I sense in you the ability to bring people to together.”

Macfarlane also has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), in part for her opposition to building a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. Macfarlane has said that the location is not geologically suitable, and Reid has been a leading opponent of the project, pledging to kill it. Jaczko, a former Reid staffer, also opposed the project.

Boxer was critical of Svinicki and said she would vote against her nomination, even though she expects her to be confirmed.

“Despite my opposition, I know you’re going to be confirmed,” Boxer said.

Boxer’s opposes Svinicki in part because she believes that Svinicki was not forthcoming in 2007 during her the confirmation process for her fist term about whether she worked on the Yucca project.

She also raised concern about Svinicki’s correspondence with the committee regarding the troubled steam generators at the San Onofre, Calif., nuclear power plant. An investigation into tube damage there has kept the reactors offline for months.

Boxer claims that, in an NRC letter to the committee, Svinicki crossed out a paragraph suggesting the NRC review the design changes to the plant, which environmentalists charge were the cause of the plant’s problems.

Svinicki said she believed that a review of the issue was already underway.

Boxer said that Svinicki could have been clearer in the correspondence.

“Its another one of those examples of my being extremely disappointed in the way you answer me, and it goes back to Yucca,” Boxer said. “Its one of the reasons I am not supporting your re-nomination.”

Sen. James Inholfe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the panel, praised Svinicki, whom he knows from when she was a GOP staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

“The nomination of Kristine Svinicki to continue to serve on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is crucial; especially as the Commission enters a tumultuous time with a lack of transparent leadership while continuing to make important decisions regarding nuclear safety,” Inhofe said.

On Macfarlane, Inhofe said he had concerns about her previous research and publications.

Nevertheless, he said he hoped that these would “not inhibit her ability to be a fair judge of the licensing of a nuclear waste repository,” Inhofe said.

Sessions, who is also a member of the panel, said he does not plan to block Macfarlane’s nomination, but told her, “Your background is not the type of background I would look for in a chairman.”