The Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairwoman's announcement yesterday that she'd resign at year's end plunged the agency once more into uncertainty about its leadership and direction.
Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane plans to leave the NRC to direct the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University, cutting short a five-year term slated to end June 30, 2018.
Her announcement followed the departures of two other commissioners earlier this year and a recent past history of infighting and political intrigue at the agency.
It's not clear who'll follow Macfarlane. The White House must designate a chairman from sitting commissioners. There are currently three on the panel, with a fourth to be sworn in next month.
The most likely person to be tapped, industry sources say, is the fourth member -- former NRC General Counsel Stephen Burns, whom the Senate confirmed last month to a full five-year term. He is scheduled to be sworn in Nov. 5, NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner said.
The next NRC leader must take the reins of an agency that has come under political pressure and scrutiny over concerns about nuclear safety since the 2011 disaster in Japan, an aging U.S. nuclear fleet and workforce, and, most of all, the country's legacy of radioactive waste and the fight over long-term storage at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
The Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository and its powerful critic, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), will play a key role in the White House's decision for the next NRC chairman and the nominee for Macfarlane's position.
Reid was instrumental in placing former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, his former staffer, at the head of the NRC to halt the review of the now-abandoned repository. Jaczko's time as chairman was tumultuous, marred by opposition to his management style from his fellow commissioners and staffers. He's blamed by many in the industry for politicizing what was once considered a technical, nonpolitical agency.
President Obama nominated Macfarlane in 2012 after Jaczko resigned, and the Senate confirmed her for a second term as chairwoman in June 2013.
Macfarlane, who has led NRC since 2012, said she was brought to the agency to "right the ship" after the tumultuous tenure of Jaczko and to ensure lessons from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster were implemented in the United States, and "with those key objectives accomplished," she would return to academia.
She was seen as a breath of fresh air after Jaczko's public spat with his former colleagues, two Republicans and two Democrats who complained to the White House about his management style and attempts to block information. Jaczko denied the allegations.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the NRC, applauded Macfarlane's leadership, saying in a statement she "handled a tough leadership situation at the NRC with grace, even as she was pushed to undermine the industry and implement unnecessary regulations."
The Nuclear Energy Industry also commended Macfarlane for her service and "effectiveness in restoring collaboration and collegiality at the commission," Steve Kerekes, an NEI spokesman, said in an email.
But Macfarlane ran into conflict with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the EPW panel. Among other things, Boxer criticized Macfarlane for not handing over information tied to the now-shuttered San Onofre nuclear plant in California.
Boxer and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also recently criticized a rumored agency draft proposal that calls for the NRC's Office of General Counsel to recommend procedural changes to the Office of Investigations. The NRC denied that any such action was in the works (E&ENews PM, Oct. 9).
Paul Dickman, a government scientist and former senior official at NRC, said the political scrutiny and recent turmoil, plus the barrage of document requests and questions, were having a significant effect on morale at the agency and likely contributed to Macfarlane's decision to leave.
"It is intended to create a nuisance and a distraction, and it does," Dickman said. The turnover of leadership, along with senior staff leaving, is "a huge concern" for the agency and industry, he added.
"The technical strength and knowledge base on the commission and NRC is essential. Staff turnover is always expected, but stability is absolutely necessary," said Dickman, who is also on the board of the American Nuclear Society.
"A big concern we all have in the nuclear industry is that this is one of the technically weakest commissions we have ever had, and that does have an impact on staff actions and decisions," he said.
The NRC has five seats on the commission. After Macfarlane leaves, two seats will be filled by Republicans and one by a Democrat. After being sworn in, Burns will fill a Democratic seat.
Kristine Svinicki, a Republican and former nuclear engineer and policy adviser in the Senate, is in her second term as a commissioner, which ends June 30, 2017.
William Ostendorff, also a Republican, is in his second term as commissioner, finishing in June 2016. He was the former director of the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy and a director of the Board on Global Science and Technology at the National Academies.
The Democratic commissioner is Jeffery Baran, a former aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who is serving the remainder of former Commissioner Bill Magwood's term -- about a year. Baran was criticized by Republicans during the nomination process for his lack of regulatory experience.
Vitter said of both Baran and Burns during the confirmation process that although the nominees' "dedication to public service is clearly demonstrated, I question the potential of their contribution to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission." Vitter's criticism was shared by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who said Baran didn't grasp the independent nature of the NRC and questioned Burns' legal advice to Jaczko.
Burns was general counsel under Jaczko and defended his decision to assume "emergency powers" after the Fukushima accident, which was the primary factor for the turmoil three years ago at the agency.
Burns was the head of legal affairs for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where he went after working as NRC general counsel from 2009 to 2012. He had been at the nuclear agency since 1978 in the roles of deputy general counsel; associate general counsel for hearings, enforcement and administration; and executive assistant for then-NRC Chairman Kenneth Carr in the late 1980s (E&E Daily, July 23).
"Burns has been there a long time, has experience, but ... Jaczko's assumption of emergency powers after Fukushima was one of the most extreme abuses of power I've seen in government," Sessions said during the confirmation process. "This was the lawyer that advised him that he had the power to do it."
But other industry insiders agree Burns is the only current prospect with managerial experience and the likely Reid support necessary to be chosen by the White House for the top position.
Reid "is going to get his guy," said Mike McKenna, an energy lobbyist and GOP strategist. "And make no mistake, Burns is his guy."
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