Macfarlane cites Fukushima, teamwork as priorities at NRC

After more than a month on the job, the new chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Allison Macfarlane, said Aug. 14 that she is devoted both to learning lessons from Japan’s Fukushima disaster while also getting off on the right foot with her fellow commissioners and NRC staff.

Macfarlane was sworn in July 9 to complete the unfinished term of former Chairman Greg Jaczko, who resigned from NRC earlier this year. Macfarlane is scheduled to serve until June 30, 2013.

Jaczko announced in May that he would leave NRC. His departure marks an acrimonious period at NRC. Jaczko had drawn fire not only from industry and GOP congressmen but also the other four commissioners – who took the unusual move of criticizing Jaczko publicly.

During an Aug. 14 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Macfarlane sought to establish that she would both continue Fukushima-related efforts by Jaczko while simultaneously reaching out to NRC staff and her fellow commissioners.

Macfarlane praised the professionalism and devotion to safety by NRC staff. During the press conference, sponsored by Energy Daily, Macfarlane was asked if NRC staff was too easy on the nuclear industry.

Macfarlane said that based on her early impressions that NRC staff members are serious regulators, dedicated to safety and not afraid to stand up to industry. Several times during the meeting with reporters, which was webcast via C-Span, Macfarlane stressed that NRC is a regulator and not a policy maker.

As for her four fellow commissioners, Macfarlane said she started meeting with the other commissioners one-on-one even before being sworn in as chairman.

She likened NRC to an academic department. “It’s a group of peer equals, one of whom was elected chair.”        The NRC is working on the budget “in a collegial way.”

Busy new chair focuses on Fukushima

Macfarlane, a geologist and academic, said she has spent the first month or so getting immersed in NRC issues. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose. I’m getting constant briefings,” Macfarlane said.

“We are very much focused right now on Fukushima and the lessons we have learned from Fukushima,” Macfarlane said.

The new chair said that NRC has recently instructed nuclear plant operators to make more portable emergency equipment available both on-site and off-site in order to cope with any potential station blackout. Likewise, NRC also wants to see more monitoring equipment installed for spent fuel pools.

NRC is also expected to take an in-depth look at the idea of moving more spent fuel from pools to dry cask storage. While sometimes described as a critic of Yucca Mountain, Macfarlane said it is clear that the United States will ultimately need some type of long-term repository for nuclear waste.

Prior to joining NRC, Macfarlane served on the Department of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. As a member of that panel, Macfarlane said she would like to see more emphasis on “the backend” of the nuclear fuel cycle.

NRC is also moving forward with additional research on earthquake and flooding risks around existing nuclear power plants. As a geologist, Macfarlane said the earthquake in Japan and last year’s East Coast earthquake near Dominion’s (NYSE: D) North Anna plant point to the importance of geological issues.

On a broader issue, Macfarlane said she would like to see NRC communicate better. The agency needs to provide a list of acronyms with its key documents. “Imagine a grandmother who lives near a nuclear power plant trying to slog through some of these issues.”

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.