Kristine Svinicki knew just how to warm up hundreds of nuclear physicists, engineers and other experts who had gathered for a nuclear regulatory conference in Maryland earlier this year.
She cracked a neutron joke.
"A neutron walks into a bar, and the bartender says, 'What'll you have?'" the 45-year-old Nuclear Regulatory Commission member said, her small frame tucked behind a wooden lectern at a hotel in downtown Bethesda, Md. "The neutron says, 'I think I'll have a beer, but how much is it?' and the bartender answers, 'For you, no charge.'"
Svinicki's wit doesn't surprise her former colleagues, even if it's seldom seen in public settings.
Svinicki, they say, works long hours, has garnered accolades from top ranking lawmakers and shares only sparing details about her personal life. That serious exterior, they say, allowed her to navigate Washington, D.C., politics and succeed in the male-dominated field of nuclear engineering, eventually taking a NRC seat in 2008.
No stranger to Capitol Hill, Svinicki worked for more than a decade as a Senate Republican staffer and as a nuclear engineer for the U.S. Department of Energy. The native Michigander is the youngest of seven children, plays the violin and is an avid traveler during her rare time off.
But as she seeks a second term on NRC, Svinicki's decision to remain quiet about her life heading up to her confirmation hearing in the Senate today has offered opponents an opportunity to cast her in a harsh light.
Anti-nuclear groups have accused Svinicki of being "absurdly pro-nuclear" and of opposing outgoing NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko's call for fast-tracked safety upgrades to U.S. reactors following the nuclear disaster in Japan last year. And despite President Obama's nomination of Svinicki to a second five-year term on NRC in April, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Jaczko's former boss, has said she's too cozy with the nuclear industry and possibly lied to Congress about her work on the Yucca Mountain, Nev., nuclear waste repository, a project he fiercely opposes.
Svinicki's supporters say the criticism is nothing more than political posturing.
Republicans say Reid is targeting Svinicki for joining her NRC colleagues, a Republican and two Democrats, who aired accusations last year that Jaczko bullied NRC female staffers and withheld information -- charges that Jaczko denies (Greenwire, Dec. 14, 2011).
Reid also mischaracterized a paper Svinicki co-authored on Yucca in 1996, said Lake Barrett, who headed DOE's Office of Civilian Nuclear Waste Management in the 1990s when Svinicki worked there as an engineer. Svinicki didn't lie when she testified in the Senate in 2007 that she didn't work on Yucca Mountain, he said.
Sources have also rejected the Sierra Club's accusation that Svinicki slow-walked reactor upgrades following the Japanese disaster last year. One high-ranking official at NRC, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said she only paused the safety proposals to gather public comment. "She didn't stall those recommendations; she took a deliberative view," the source said.
David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Safety Project, said the truth may be somewhere in the middle.
Svinicki, he said, falls in line with the industry mindset that some risks have been overstated but added that she is in no way an "industry puppet" and that her views have stayed consistent since he first met her more than a decade ago.
"I don't agree with some of the positions she takes, but I think they're sincere views," Lochbaum said. "I don't think that the industry is getting to her or she's reading their script."
'Honor their memories'
Svinicki was one of several high-ranking NRC officials who were thrust into the public spotlight last year following the nuclear crisis that erupted in Japan. An internal agency spat followed shortly, culminating in Jaczko's recent decision to resign.
Despite the political fireworks, Svinicki's past work and the recollections of her former colleagues indicate she is a private person and a stranger to public scrutiny.
Svinicki was born on Sept. 6, 1966, in Jackson, Mich., a city of 33,500 people about 40 miles west of Ann Arbor. Jackson is famous for being the birthplace in 1854 of the Republican Party.
Svinicki went on to study at Jackson Community College and earned a bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan in 1988.
Her decision to pursue a career in nuclear engineering was shaped by her father, Emil, who died when she was 18, sources say.
Former Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), Svinicki's former boss, said in his 2007 testimony during her hearing to join NRC that she chose nuclear engineering in college because "she had lost both of her parents when she was still quite young -- a teenager -- she had wanted to honor their memories by cherishing the value they held highest, which was education."
Warner recalled that when he asked Svinicki about the origin of her last name, she said her grandfather had come to the United States from Slovakia in the early part of the last century and that he had worked off the cost of his passage in the iron mines of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He saved up enough money to bring his wife and daughters to America, and Svinicki's father was born in this country after the family was reunited in Michigan.
Svinicki's father grew up as a poor farm boy in Michigan's Upper Peninsula but later served in the U.S. Army's 5th Infantry Division and fought in World War II, according to an article that Jane Svinicki, Kristine's sister, wrote in a 2010 edition of Midwest Cleaning and Restoration Association. Emil Svinicki "landed at Normandy beach and fought his way across Europe," saw the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and earned two Bronze Stars for distinguished valor in combat, she wrote.
Emil Svinicki would later attend the Illinois Institute of Technology under the G.I. Bill to become an architect. Warner said he was the first in his family to go to college. "After the war he was through with destruction and spent the rest of his life building homes, churches, offices and factories," Jane Svinicki wrote. "He built a lot of churches."
Kristine Svinicki would say in the spring 2010 edition of Michigan Engineering in a special "Women in Engineering" issue that she became an engineer out of a "curiosity about how things work and how to make them better."
Warner said during a phone interview last month that Svinikci was a quiet, hard-working, conscientious staffer who put in long hours.
"She stands out as an exceptional professional," he said. "I do distinctly remember her."
A lifelong journey of learning
Svinicki's strong work ethic garnered the attention of her superiors and raised her to a position of prominence on NRC.
In 1989, she moved to Madison, Wis., to work for a year as an energy engineer for the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, where she evaluated long-term energy demand forecasts and coordinated planning for the state's public utilities.
In 1990, Svinicki began working at the Department of Energy's Idaho Operations Office in Idaho Falls. There, she worked under Steve Aumeier, the lab's deputy director, who quickly became impressed with her dedication and ability to work "grad school" hours.
Aumeier soon learned that Svinicki's strong principles and dedication stemmed from an early experience with her father, who told her to follow her dreams. Svinicki's desire to explore the world -- her love of music and her affinity for the outdoors and for traveling to far-flung destinations like Antarctica or the North Pole -- matched her intense work ethic, he said.
Music is a diversion, Svinicki told Michigan Engineering.
"I even continue to take music lessons each week ... unusual for someone my age, but I think of learning -- technical or creative -- as a lifelong journey. To me, it's important to balance your technical pursuits with some purely creative ones. Cooking is something I also enjoy and find relaxing. And I eat a vegetarian diet -- in typical engineer fashion, I tried a vegetarian diet as a six-month experiment... twenty years ago."
Svinicki transferred to a DOE job in Washington, D.C., in 1994 and continued working as a nuclear engineer while completing a detail for former Sen. Larry Craig's (R-Idaho) office from January 1997 to January 2001. Craig, a proponent of opening the Yucca repository, introduced a bill in 2007 with Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) to expedite licensing of the waste site (E&E Daily, May 24, 2007). She then stayed on with Craig's office another four years as a senior policy adviser until January 2005.
In 2007, Craig joked about being under "the evil eye of Kristine" but quickly articulated that he meant "the very instructive, clear-thinking eye of Kristine," saying he appreciated her frank and forthright manner.
After that, she went to work for Warner's office as a professional staff member when he was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
She also worked for the committee after leaving DOE from 2005 to 2008 and worked for former Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who became the committee's ranking member in January 2007. Svinicki mainly worked on defense science and technology programs and policies, nuclear weapons, nuclear security and environmental programs.
In 2008, Svinicki was unanimously approved to a five-year term on NRC, along with Jaczko (Greenwire, March 14, 2008). Now Jaczko is departing, but Svinicki is in line for a second term.
Some Senate Democrats may still criticize her during the nomination process. But with her confirmation hearing being held simultaneously today with that of Allison Macfarlane, Obama's choice to succeed Jaczko as NRC chairman, Svinicki should be able to dodge the biggest brickbats and is expected to be confirmed, as Democrats are seeking to prevent any controversy from erupting over Macfarlane's nomination.
Still, some of Svinicki's allies are offering pre-emptory praise in case she does get attacked.
Her lengthy education in nuclear engineering and the accolades she has received from the American Nuclear Society and other professional groups don't automatically mean Svinicki is pro-industry, said Paul Dickman, a retired NRC official who was chief of staff for former Republican NRC Chairman Dale Klein.
"She aligns with the nuclear profession, not the nuclear industry," Dickman said.