Last week, President Barack Obama announced that he would nominate Dr. Allison Macfarlane, a nuclear waste expert from George Mason University, as the United States’ top nuclear regulator.
Conventional wisdom is that Dr. Macfarlane satisfies all the major political interests involved with the NRC decision. She is a vocal opponent of Yucca Mountain. Harry Reid, check. She is on board with many of the post-Fukushima safety reforms. EPW Chair Barbara Boxer, check. And she is pro-nuclear, Senate Republicans, check. Tying this all nicely together is that fact that she served on the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future and is a generally respected nuclear expert.
But here is the rub from my perspective. Being a good regulator should have nothing to do with one’s previously held policy or political positions. This is where Chairman Jaczko went wrong. Everyone knew coming in that he was anti-Yucca, and many believed that he was anti-nuclear. Those positions, in and of themselves, should not have impacted his work as the nation’s lead nuclear regulator. His job should have been to carry out the mission of the NRC, which essentially is to ensure that all of the nuclear activities that fall under NRC jurisdiction are carried out safely. The problem came when he apparently allowed his previously held positions get in the way of that duty. This was most apparent in the Yucca debacle. It may have surfaced more generally as well.
This problem can be just as detrimental from a pro-nuclear or pro-Yucca standpoint. These “pro” positions should have no influence on the decisions that any of the NRC commissioners make, much less the chairman. In Yucca terms, that means reviewing the DOE’s application per the law and his responsibility as Chairman of the NRC. If the application passes muster, then the NRC can issue the permit. If it does not, then it should not.
This then puts the political aspects of nuclear power back where it should be: with politicians. Once the permit passes the NRC, then the bureaucrats and politicians can fight over what to do with it. Those decisions should lie outside of the NRC.
The question regarding Dr. Macfarlane is whether she can withstand the immense pressure that she will surely feel, directly and indirectly, and put her pro-nuclear and anti-Yucca policy positions to the side and simply be a good, apolitical and neutral regulator.
That is what should always be the goal for any NRC commissioner. But in the wake of the Jaczko Chairmanship, it may be more important that ever.”