Democrat Boxer proves most vocal critic of NRC chair Macfarlane

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane made her case May 23 for a full five-year term at the helm of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, indicating she has helped restore harmony to the commission.

But to win confirmation before her term expires June 30, Macfarlane might have to overcome pushback from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Energy and Public Works Committee. Boxer fears NRC will prematurely allow partial restart of one of the two idle nuclear units in her state.

“I have been honored to serve as Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the past ten months,” Macfarlane told Boxer’s committee. “The NRC has accomplished a tremendous amount in that short time, and my leadership has promoted the openness and collegiality necessary for us to focus on our priorities,” Macfarlane said.

The Macfarlane nomination is unique in a couple of ways.

Macfarlane has only been with the commission, and serving as its chair, since July 2012. Macfarlane was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate last summer to fill the stormy, unexpired term of Chairman Greg Jaczko.

Republicans such as Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama credited Macfarlane with soothing NRC following a “tumultuous” period under Jaczko.

At the same time, Sessions and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., the ranking minority member, said they were troubled by Macfarlane’s vote in favor of “filtered vents” for certain reactors. Vitter said suggested that filtered vents are a costly measure that might provide minimal safety benefit.

On a wider issue, GOP members said that under Macfarlane NRC could be pushing too far, too fast for new regulations inspired by the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan.

But the Republicans aren’t Macfarlane’s only concern.

Vitter said that Macfarlane’s committee confirmation hearing was held up for several weeks because of questions raised by Boxer.

“I’d be the last person to object to that,” Vitter said. Vitter’s remark, which drew laughter, was an apparent dig at Boxer. Boxer and other Democrats roundly criticized Republicans on the panel weeks ago for holding up the nomination vote for Gina McCarthy to head EPA.

Boxer targets San Onofre concerns

GOP lawmakers cite Macfarlane’s vote against the commission majority on filtered vents as a sign that she is too tough on industry.

Boxer, however, fears that Macfarlane will allow Edison International (NYSE:EIX) subsidiary Southern California Edison (SCE) “rush to restart” Unit 2 of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

“There is a difference between being collegial and rubber stamping everything,” Boxer said to Macfarlane. Boxer went on to stress that she has her differences with Macfarlane.

“I don’t agree with you. The way you are handling this,” Boxer told Macfarlane. Boxer appeared unimpressed that NRC will ensure that all “technical” investigations are complete before deciding whether to allow San Onofre 2 should be allowed to restart for several months at 70% power.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., also noted that she has asked NRC to take a fresh look at evacuation zones around Entergy’s (NYSE:ETR) Indian Point reactors in the state of New York.

Boxer said millions of residents live within 50 miles of the nuclear plant in San Diego County. The senator also said that San Onofre is located in a “tsunami” zone with high seismic activity.

On the GOP questioning front, Macfarlane repeatedly told Vitter “we will follow the law,” when asked about an upcoming federal appeals court ruling on whether NRC should resume the license process for the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada.

“Under my leadership, the NRC has navigated a number of internal challenges. I am proud that our agency has been able to address sequestration without furloughs,” Macfarlane said in her prepared testimony.

Obama said March 21 that he was sending Macfarlane’s name to the Senate for re-nomination to a full term that would run through June 30, 2018.

Macfarlane is a geologist who comes from an academic background. Like newly-confirmed Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz, she was a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

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.