Macfarlane says NRC must remain independent

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must continue to be an independent regulator that operates free of political influence, departing NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane told a National Press Club luncheon Nov. 17 in Washington, D.C.

Macfarlane said she has been “fiercely” protective of the NRC’s independence since she joined the commission and became chairman in the summer of 2012. Macfarlane surprised many observers in October when she announced she would resign NRC effective Jan. 1 in order to accept a position with George Washington University.

Macfarlane’s announcement that she had decided to return to the academic world came only about 14 months after she was confirmed for a full five-year term at NRC.

When asked if the White House was a factor in her decision to leave early, she replied “absolutely not. …They were probably as surprised as anybody else.”

Macfarlane returned to the independence theme several times during the presentation. It’s important for independent regulators, “to be just that: independent,” Macfarlane said. “It is essential that we remain independent.”

When first nominated for NRC in 2012, some Republicans questioned a geologist and academic like Macfarlane had sufficient background to lead NRC. In the past year, however, Macfarlane had NRC have often been the target of much scrutiny by Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

“It was a tumultuous time,” Macfarlane said of the period when she first came to NRC. She said that relations inside the organization were “strained” – an apparent reference to the tenure of former NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko.

In addition, the Fukushima disaster in Japan was still relatively recent and a federal court had put on hold most NRC license activity until the so-called “waste confidence” issue was addressed.

Macfarlane touches on issues ranging from economics to Yucca Mountain

Here are a few of Macfarlane’s observations as she prepares to depart:

**Fukushima: Macfarlane believes the NRC and the U.S. nuclear industry have made great progress. Key elements of a Fukushima task force report have been addressed while others still remain to be dealt with, Macfarlane said.

NRC has devoted much effort to making U.S. nuclear plants less at risk to severe accidents that might involve flooding. In addition, the industry has opened two emergency centers in Memphis and Phoenix that will be capable of moving additional emergency equipment to any U.S. nuclear plant within 24 hours, she noted.

 “I believe that complacency is always a threat,” Macfarlane said.

**Nuclear plant performance: Macfarlane is worried that some of the nation’s low-performing plants seem to stay near the bottom of the list for extended periods.

**New nuclear construction: The first new nuclear reactors in decades are now being built in the United States and this presents challenges, Macfarlane said.

Nuclear power companies have an essential responsibility in overseeing vendors and ensuring that counterfeit parts don’t get used during construction, she said.

** Retirement of existing nuclear units: Macfarlane would prefer “specific” regulations for nuclear plants entering decommissioning. They should be treated differently than operating plants on issues like security and emergency planning, Macfarlane said.

** Yucca Mountain: Macfarlane said the NRC cannot go much further in its license application review without a “willing applicant.” She noted that neither the Department of Energy (DOE) nor the Obama administration is currently seeking to license the Nevada facility.

Also “more than one repository” for spent fuel might be necessary, Macfarlane said. “We are blessed in this country. We have an enormous country,” and there are many potential sites, Macfarlane said.

** Nuclear economics: Macfarlane said economic issues, rather than Fukushima, are the chief reason that the nuclear renaissance has yet to materialize in the United States. Placing a price on carbon emission would probably help the domestic case for nuclear power, Macfarlane said.

“This is my view but I think a carbon tax would be very helpful,” for generators that don’t produce carbon, Macfarlane said.

“I think a number of factors have affected the nuclear power industry economically,” she added. The shift in population has dampened power demand in Midwest and Northeast, Macfarlane said.

The recession and the low price of natural gas have also affected nuclear power, Macfarlane said.

** Allowing plants to run longer than 60 years: About 74 reactors have already been approved by NRC to operate for up to 60 years. Going from 60-to-80 years is under consideration at NRC.

** On small modular reactors: “We’ll see when we get some license applications. It sounds like the first ones will come in 2016,” Macfarlane said. “I think there is promise in small modular reactor, but the proof is in the pudding.”

Macfarlane will join the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs in January 2015 as director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy and the M.A. program in international science and technology policy. She will teach a spring 2015 graduate course on “Energy and Society.”

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