The Senate has confirmed Allison Macfarlane for a new term as chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.Macfarlane, a geologist, has led the commission since last year.She said in a statement that she was honored to be nominated for a full five-year term as chairwoman and grateful for the Senate vote Thursday night to confirm her. She pledged to make the commission transparent and open to public engagement.Macfarlane has sparred with Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California over access to commission documents related to the San Onofre nuclear plant in California. The plan's operator said earlier this month that it will shut down operations after a series of problems
Personally I don’t think she deserves a second term.
I honestly don’t know if Boxer’s tactics are bettering or obstructing the NRC. Sometimes your friends are really your enemies!
June 20, 2013, 10:00
By MATTHEW L. WALDThe botched repair job that doomed a California nuclear plant has created a political whirlpool that may be close to claiming another victim: the chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The issue is no longer the plant itself, San Onofre, which the majority owner, Southern California Edison, announced on June 7 it would permanently close. The problem now is that Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, who is chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a longtime critic of nuclear power, has been seeking documents from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the work the utility did and how the commission oversaw that work.
The chairwoman of the commission, Allison M. Macfarlane, agreed during her confirmation hearing to a blanket request to provide documents. Opponents of nuclear power say that some of the San Onofre documents could raise safety issues about plants that are still running. Ms. Boxer’s office said they could also influence California regulators as they decide who should pay the nearly $1 billion cost of addressing the failed repair.
The Senate committee and the nuclear commission are locked in a dispute over the documents, and Dr. Macfarlane’s term ends on June 30. President Obama — who appointed her to fill out the term of the previous chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko, who resigned under pressure last year — has nominated Dr. Macfarlane for a full five-year term, but Ms. Boxer is refusing to have the committee vote on the nomination until the argument over the documents is settled.
The Senate has only three meeting days left before June 30. Dr. Macfarlane, a geologist, has told friends that she has been offered a university teaching position and will accept it if she is not confirmed for a full term.
According to both sides, negotiations between the nuclear commission and the committee are continuing. The commission has been tight-lipped about the nature of the requests and the dispute. Eliot Brenner, a spokesman for the agency, said that Senator Boxer had asked for a variety of documents and that the commission had been “working diligently to provide her what we can.”
According to a spokeswoman for the Senate committee, some of the documents would come from investigations by the nuclear commission’s Office of Investigations and its inspector general, both of which could result in criminal charges. The commission is particularly circumspect about releasing such documents, but Congressional aides maintain that oversight committees have full access to them.
The commission says that some of its members have not approved the release of the documents, according to Senate committee staff members. Collegiality has been a particular goal of Dr. Macfarlane as she attempts to show a deliberate contrast to her predecessor, Dr. Jaczko, who was accused of acting unilaterally. But the extent to which she, as chairwoman of the commission, needs the concurrence of the other commissioners is also disputed.
One of the issues in the demise of San Onofre is the system that the nuclear commission uses to supervise major repair projects. If the new equipment has the same form and function as the old equipment, the review is far less deep than if it is a new type of equipment. In the San Onofre case, giant heat exchangers called steam generators were replaced, and the new generators differed enough from the original ones that they developed vibrations and one of them leaked.
Dozens of reactors have replaced their steam generators, and many more will probably do so in the future. Some nuclear advocates fear that if the documents cast doubt on the oversight process at San Onofre, they will also raise questions about safety at other reactors.
The prospect of losing Dr. Macfarlane has created an odd dynamic, and some experts with a long history of criticizing nuclear power are alarmed by the prospect. “I think that Macfarlane is the best thing to happen to the N.R.C. in a long time,” said Peter G. Crane, a former official in the commission’s legal office who has pressed the commission on several emergency preparedness and radiation safety issues. He praised Dr. Macfarlane’s openness and said, “The dispute over the San Onofre documents is of too little importance in the greater scheme of things for the chairmanship to stand or fall because of it.”
Of the other four members of the commission, two are Democrats and thus probably in line to be appointed chairman if necessary. The senior member is George E. Apostolakis, a risk assessment expert and nuclear engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.