The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard testimony June 13 from, and asked some pretty sharp questions of, a pair of nominees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
One is a former GOP congressional staffer who is already a commissioner and the other is an academic who would replace embattled NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko at the helm of the panel.
President Obama has nominated Commissioner Kristine Svinicki for a full five-year term on the NRC and also nominated geologist and academic Allison Macfarlane for a five-year term as chairman of NRC.
Although he was not formally on the agenda, outgoing NRC Chairman Jaczko was the subject of considerable discussion. Jaczko announced his planned resignation a few weeks earlier. Jaczko has been criticized from inside NRC for poor people skills and also drew fire from the power industry on his votes on new nuclear power plants as well as his action to discontinue the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste license process.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called Macfarlane a person of “great collegiality and integrity,” an apparent reference to Jaczko’s purported poor relations with fellow commissioners and NRC staff.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said it was important for NRC to move beyond the “failed leadership” of Jaczko. Inhofe made the remark during his opening comments – and it triggered a response from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Jaczko has been a staunch defender of nuclear safety, Sanders said. Jaczko critics have used personal attacks as a smokescreen to undermine his professional views that often were at odds with industry, Sanders said.
As for the nominees that were the actual subject of the hearing, most Republicans seemed inclined to support Macfarlane – albeit with concerns about her lack of management experience in a position that would involve overseeing an agency with 4,000 people.
Macfarlane, an associate professor at George Mason University in Virginia, who recently served on the Blue Ribbon Commission for America’s Nuclear Future, said she headed several panels in the academic world, but nothing as large as NRC. Macfarlane also noted that several academics have previously served on the NRC commission and even as its chairman.
Svinicki is a nuclear engineer who worked at the Department of Energy and as a congressional staffer before joining NRC. While Svinicki won Senate approval without any opposing votes during her first confirmation, she came under sharp questioning from certain Democrats as well as Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, who caucuses with the Democrats.
Committee Chair Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said in her opening statement that a number of public interest groups are concerned about Svinicki’s reappointment. Boxer was also critical of Svinicki in a news release.
It’s worth noting that in late 2011, Svinicki joined the other commission members, including panel Democrats, in publicly criticizing Jaczko in congressional testimony.
Sanders also slammed Svinicki for voting “in secret” to urge the Justice Department to intervene on behalf of Entergy (NYSE: ETR) in advocating NRC primacy in regulation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. Boxer also criticized Svinicki’s approach to NRC regulation of Edison International’s (NYSE: EIX) San Onofre nuclear plant in California. The plant is currently shut down due to steam generator problems.
Sanders wants the NRC to be more transparent and will submit legislation to that effect. Sanders sought to elicit promises from both nominees that they would agree to public sessions where NRC commissioners would announce their votes on key issues and explain their position.
Both stopped short of complying with this request. Macfarlane said, as a nominee for chairman, she did not want to commit to such a position without first discussing the issue with the other commissioners. Svinicki said she found the current system that emphasizes written opinions very helpful.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., expressed hope that the Senate can address the NRC nominations by June 30. That’s when Svinicki’s current term expires. The two nominees were also questioned on issues ranging from licensing small modular reactors to timetables for implementing nuclear plant safeguards inspired by the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.