NRC Chair Macfarlane won’t withdraw from Yucca case

In an opinion filed Sept. 9, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chair Allison Macfarlane declined to disqualify herself from helping judge the Department of Energy (DOE) application to construct a high-level waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

Nye County, Nev., where the Yucca Mountain geologic repository would be located, had filed a motion Aug. 23 urging Macfarlane to step aside. Macfarlane, who joined the NRC as chairman in the summer of 2012, had spoken and written about the Yucca proposal in her prior academic career.

Nye County has argued that Macfarlane supports withdrawal of the DOE license and favors “going back to the drawing board” on spent fuel disposal. Macfarlane said that is not an accurate characterization.

“As part of my academic work, I co-edited a book entitled, Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste, which was published in 2006,” Macfarlane said. “In 2003 and 2006, I also testified before Congress on the topic,” Macfarlane said.

Macfarlane said she has not, however, prejudged whether Yucca Mountain should be licensed by NRC. A federal appeals court ruled in August that NRC must resume its consideration of the Yucca license case, which the Obama administration had defunded in 2010. Macfarlane appeared before a congressional panel Sept. 10 to talk about resumption of the case.

During the recent hearing, Macfarlane also said that Yucca Mountain would be judged by the five-member commission as a whole.

“When I have written about Yucca Mountain, it has been in the context of geologic disposal of nuclear waste writ large, so that any country could draw lessons from U.S. experience to improve on their own nuclear waste disposal program,” Macfarlane said in the document.

Macfarlane, a geologist who served on the Blue Ribbon Commission for America’s Nuclear Future, said people are picked for technical commissions like NRC specifically because of their technical knowledge – whether from the academic world or from the U.S. Nuclear Navy.

“It is well-established that mere knowledge of the subject matter or prior expression of a general opinion is not grounds for disqualification,” Macfarlane said.

“Indeed, it is often precisely because of their knowledge of and intense involvement in a specific regulated field that persons are appointed to lead regulatory commissions and, ultimately, to issue adjudicatory decisions with respect to issues arising in that field,” Macfarlane went on to say.

“In my capacity as a scientist, years before the DOE license application was filed, I conducted research related to Yucca Mountain, and I wrote and spoke on the topic. But many years have passed since my Yucca related research, and that research was conducted without the benefit of the DOE’s license application, or the NRC staff’s technical or environmental review I can say without hesitation that I have formed no views on the adequacy of the DOE license application,” Macfarlane wrote.

The case is Docket No. 63-001-HLW.

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