NRC nomination shines spotlight on waste-disposal issue
This story by Matthew L. Wald appeared June 10, 2012 in the New York Times
WASHINGTON — When the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee meets on Wednesday to consider President Obama’s choice to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, three themes are likely to dominate the questioning: waste, waste and earthquakes.
Collegiality and diplomacy may also be mentioned, given that the commission’s current chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko, has drawn criticism for his aggressive management style.
The nuclear industry would, no doubt, prefer more uplifting confirmation hearing topics, like new reactor construction or progress on radical new designs that would make nuclear plants more useful or economical.
But for the first time, the president has chosen a geologist for the post, Allison M. Macfarlane of George Mason University, and her expertise aligns with the pressing concerns facing Congress and the nuclear industry. She is a longtime critic of the idea of burying waste at Yucca Mountain, a volcanic structure about 100 miles from Las Vegas chosen by Congress in the late 1980s, considering its geology too unpredictable. With little new plant construction, the commission’s main responsibility these days is assuring the safety of the 104 plants now operating, and what to do with the decades-old problem of waste.
On Friday, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the commission had not paid enough attention to the problems of long-term waste storage or the possibility that there will never be a repository.
The industry, its opponents, Congress and the courts are all focused on whether a disposal site can be found for the nation’s nuclear waste, and whether waste should be moved out of fuel pools and into sturdy dry casks to better protect them from earthquakes and terrorism. Quakes that struck reactors in Japan and in Virginia last year also raise questions about the safety of today’s reactors.
When the president picks a geologist, “it’s a new day and a new age and a new way of looking at things,” said Robert R. Loux, a former director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office, which opposed construction of a waste repository in that state.
Dr. Macfarlane, who declined to be interviewed before her confirmation hearing, does not seem to have said much in public about the desirability of nuclear power as opposed to other electricity sources. But she has opposed Yucca Mountain, which was ruled out by Mr. Obama but is still favored by most Republican lawmakers and some Democrats.
“It is almost impossible to decipher the detailed history of a rock, let alone predict reactions into the geologic future,” Dr. Macfarlane wrote in “Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste,” a collection of scholarly articles published in 2006 that she jointly edited.
She wrote the concluding chapter, in which she said, “Geology has not advanced far enough yet to expect that it can do this for the rocks at Yucca Mountain.” The Department of Energy’s analysis tries to establish that Yucca would entomb the wastes for a million years, but no one should have confidence in the science behind such predictions, Dr. Macfarlane wrote. In 2010, she was appointed to the 15-member Blue Ribbon Commission assigned to look into alternatives to Yucca.
The industry and the commission are still debating what should be done with the waste until a permanent repository is found. Dr. Macfarlane is already on record as favoring reducing the amount in the pools and moving more into dry cask storage. While the spent fuel in pools at Japan’s damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant is still causing worries, the waste in the casks is secure even though a tsunami rolled through the area.
An earthquake last August centered in Mineral, Va., hit the twin-unit North Anna plants there with greater force than its reactors were designed to withstand. They were shut down for weeks for inspection, yet no significant damage was found.
As a geologist, Dr. Macfarlane would be likely to take an active role in the commission’s re-evaluation of earthquake safety east of the Rockies, prompted by a United States Geological Survey reassessment of earthquake probabilities.
Her confirmation is considered highly likely, mainly because of the Senate’s practice of confirming members to multimember agencies in pairs, one Democrat and one Republican. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, and other Republicans called for the reappointment of Kristine L. Svinicki, whose term expires at the end of this month. Ms. Svinicki, a nuclear engineer, is one of the few women to serve on the commission. She was previously on the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee and has dealt with military and civilian nuclear issues.
Dr. Svinicki would be confirmed to a full five-year term. But if confirmed, Dr. Macfarlane would serve out the remainder of Dr. Jaczko’s term, which runs to June 30, 2013. Because the chairman is designated by the president, however, she could lose that role if the White House changes hands in January.
And while the Republicans on the committee may not like Dr. Macfarlane’s position on Yucca, they have acknowledged publicly that Dr. Jaczko, who announced last month that he would step down, has been far too divisive as chairman.
Dr. Macfarlane, 48, who has taught environmental science at George Mason University since 2006, does not have experience running a government regulatory panel. Fellow members of the Blue Ribbon Commission and others who have dealt with her in an academic context said she frequently tried to build consensus among colleagues on technical issues. Commission votes are often divided, like Supreme Court justices’ opinions, but nuclear industry executives say the relentless discord at the commission has slowed the agency’s decision-making.
Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: “The chairman doesn’t have that much additional authority; when it comes to policy issues, it’s just one vote out of five. The chairman’s power is based partly on the ability to persuade.”
Dr. Jaczko has frequently been outvoted 4 to 1 on decisions like April’s vote to approve a construction and operating license for two new reactors near Augusta, Ga. The chairman has a bigger role in administrative decisions, which Dr. Jackzo used to slow down consideration of Yucca Mountain; if Yucca questions reached her desk in the next few months, Dr. Macfarlane is expected to do the same.