Change is Coming to the NRC

After months of controversy surrounding the leadership of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), on May 21 Chairman Gregory Jaczko announced he would resign his post. Jaczko said he was ready to exit the Commission and cited a number of accomplishments, including NRC review of the Fukushima accident and the lessons learned. He did not link his decision to leave with the controversy over his leadership style.

The Chairman said he would remain at his job until a successor is confirmed. Within a week of Jaczko’s announcement, the White House nominated Dr. Allison Macfarlane, who holds a doctorate in geology, to head the Commission.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has jurisdiction over the NRC and will vet the nominee prior to full Senate consideration.

Politics Behind the Jaczko Nomination
Jaczko’s nomination to NRC was the result of political maneuvering by Senator Harry Reid (D-NV).

In 2003, when a Commission seat became vacant, Reid used his power to block all of President Bush’s Republican nominations throughout the government, including judicial seats and the Department of Energy (DOE), unless Bush agreed to nominate Reid staff member Jaczko to the Commission, according to Roll Call. Bush compromised with Reid on Jaczko’s confirmation in exchange for allowing consideration on a number of Republican nominations.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that by getting Jaczko appointed to the Commission, Reid hoped to gain influence over an upcoming decision on whether to issue a license allowing Yucca Mountain to receive spent nuclear fuel.

Yucca Mountain was designated by law (Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and amended in 1987) to become the nation’s repository for commercial spent nuclear fuel, but ultimate use of the site cannot proceed until the NRC completes its license review. The review was halted under Jaczko’s leadership in 2010.

More Politics
Kristine Svinicki’s re-nomination to the Commission had the potential to become another power play between Reid and Senate Republicans. Svinicki was the catalyst for much of Jaczko’s criticisms over his management style. Such criticism was an issue for Reid and contributed to his opposition to Svinicki serving a second term.

However, the nomination of Macfarlane, whom Reid supports, works as a compromise to balance Reid’s opposition to Svinicki and provides Democrats with a suitable candidate in exchange for support of Svinicki’s re-nomination. The Senate is expected to move quickly to confirm both Svinicki to a second term and Macfarlane as head of the NRC. (See a related statement from Senator Reid.)

>>Related: About the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.