Questions on SONGS, storage of spent nuclear fuel fly at NRC confirmation hearing

By Brian Wheeler, senior editor, and Sharryn Dotson, online editor

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on June 13 held a hearing on the nomination for Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko’s replacement, Allison Macfarlane. The committee also addressed the reappointment of Kristine Svinicki to the commission.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko on May 21 resigned, a position he held since May 2009, effective upon the confirmation of a successor.

Macfarlane is an Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University in Virginia.  She currently serves as a member of the White House’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.  In 2006 MIT Press published her book, “Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste,” which explores the technical issues for nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Svinicki earned her BA in nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan before taking a job with the state of Wisconsin. She then moved to the U.S. Department of Energy with the Idaho Operations Process at the Idaho Nuclear Laboratory. She transferred to the DOE’s headquarters in Washington DC and was named as a staff member of the Arms Services Committee in 2007.

“She has visited about half of the U.S. nuclear power plants,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who introduced Svinicki to the committee. “She’s earned the respect of many employees at the NRC and I very much want to see her return to the commission for another term.”

Not all of the committee members were as welcoming. California Sen. Barbara Boxer said she would not be voting for Svinicki because of conflicting answers she gave about her work with Yucca Mountain and because Boxer said Svinicki opposed her request for a redesign review of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). The 2,200 MW power plant is currently shut down through August because of wear on tubes found inside the reactors.

“I asked for a review of a license amendment at SONGS, but do you think we should have had a review?” Boxer said.

“I support a review,” Svinicki said.

Sessions did say that Macfarlane’s background is not the typical background for an NRC chairman, and a few of the senators questioned if she would be able to handle managing 4,000 employees at the NRC.

“You are walking into a tough situation,” Boxer said to Macfarlane. “But, I sense you can bring people together.”

Questions for both nominees covered issues such as the need for a nuclear waste repository, reports of intimidation from upper management at NRC and what timetable Macfarlane and Svinicki think should be followed to implement post-Fukushima safety regulations.

“Will you work to ensure that the schedule is accelerated so nuclear safety improvements are implemented in five years?” Boxer asked.

“Yes, I will work to implement them in five years even though there may be some regulatory issues outside of my control,” Svinicki said.

On the subject of a nuclear waste repository, both Macfarlane and Svinicki said they believe the U.S. needs a permanent site.

“Putting on my Blue Ribbon Commission hat, I wholeheartedly agree that we need nuclear repository sites,” Macfarlane said.

The concern echoed by almost all of the senators was if Macfarlane could work with all of the commissioners and staff.

“I will work to ensure that the NRC is a top place to work for all of its employees,” Macfarlane said.

There is no word on when the voting results will be made public.

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