NRC Chairman Macfarlane on Nuclear Waste

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Publication date: 
21 November 2014

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Allison Macfarlane will be leaving her position on January 1 to become a professor of public policy at George Washington University where she will also direct its Center for International Science and Technology Policy.  In remarks delivered in Washington, D.C. this week Macfarlane discussed her tenure and offered her views on, among other topics, nuclear waste.  Excerpts from her address are below. 

Macfarlane’s comments come at a time when the NRC and the outlook on the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository are changing.  Last week, President Obama nominated a current NRC member, Jeff Baran, to a full five-year term on the commission.  Baran is currently serving out the remaining term of a commissioner who left the NRC in August.  His was confirmed to this initial position by a Senate vote of 56-44 in September.  Baran came to the NRC from Capitol Hill, where he was most recently the Staff Director for Energy and Environment of the Democratic staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  There is speculation that the President could appoint Baran, or another commissioner, Stephen Burns, to replace Macfarlane, after her departure, as the new Chairman. 

When Congress convenes in January the Senate will have a new Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY).  How this change in the Senate leadership will affect Yucca Mountain’s future is unknown; current Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has been able to block the proposed repository.  The Obama Administration is opposed to the repository.

Selection’s from Macfarlane’s remarks follow:

“First Impressions:

“From my time on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which set a new strategy for dealing with the country’s nuclear waste, I had seen the benefit of effective public engagement. I was determined to approach my Chairmanship with a commitment to openness and transparency. As a nuclear waste expert, I had long believed that the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle – everything that occurs once spent fuel is removed from a reactor vessel – does not receive the attention and respect it needs.”

"Continued Storage:

“I feel strongly that we as a nation not use the assurance of safe interim high-level waste storage as an excuse not to make progress in developing a permanent repository. We must reinvigorate our focus on the permanent disposal of spent fuel.”

"Yucca Mountain:

“In terms of the back end, I should also mention Yucca Mountain. As many of you know, in August 2013, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the NRC to resume review of the Yucca Mountain license application, using its remaining Nuclear Waste Fund resources – about $13 million.

“While we acted to resume work on Yucca Mountain in a timely and transparent way, the work we’re doing now represents only part of a lengthy and complicated licensing process, which is nowhere near completion. At the time the staff’s Yucca Mountain work was suspended in 2010, there were more than 300 contentions challenging the application. The Safety Evaluation Report and the environmental impact statement may trigger additional contentions. Hearings must be conducted and each contention must be resolved by the Licensing Board before the NRC’s review can be considered complete. Only then would the Commission make a final licensing decision.

“I want to emphasize that the Department of Energy and the Administration have been clear that they’re not pursuing a license for Yucca Mountain, and Congress hasn’t provided resources for them to do so. Without a willing applicant, the NRC cannot pursue the remaining portion of the licensing process.”


After discussing the above issues encountered during her two and one-half year tenure, Macfarlane offered her thoughts on future issues that will come before the NRC.

"Completing the Fuel Cycle:

“As I noted earlier, I’ve long believed that an integrated approach to the nuclear fuel cycle, with sufficient emphasis on the back end, is essential in working with all forms of nuclear energy. In this context, some of my most significant efforts have been directed toward bringing greater focus to matters such as on-site spent nuclear fuel storage and spent fuel transportation and disposal.

“As an independent regulator, the NRC doesn’t make energy policy for the nation, but we’re nonetheless impacted significantly by the decisions of our energy policy-makers. As the Administration and Congress continue to grapple with a path forward for nuclear waste management and disposal in the United States, the NRC must in turn continue to ensure that radioactive waste can be stored safely at nuclear reactor sites until a permanent disposal option becomes available.

“This raises a number of issues of particular significance to me. It’s important to mention that fuel is typically designed to maximize its performance in the reactor, not in a repository. Considerations on the front end don’t always account for how the fuel may behave decades after its use. Another issue is spent fuel transportation. Fuel that’s been removed from pools and placed in dry casks may need to be repackaged before its ultimate disposal to account for the design of the disposal site, damaged fuel, or heat considerations. Research on long-term spent fuel integrity, currently underway in the U.S. and elsewhere, will be critical to protecting public health and safety.

“I also note that an integrated approach to the nuclear fuel cycle means that we have to address the reality that – as the Blue Ribbon Commission concluded – current and projected spent fuel inventories will require more than one repository. In addition, the Administration is now exploring the potential for deep geologic boreholes for high-level waste emplacement. Since our current siting standards for deep geologic disposal are specific to the Yucca Mountain site, I believe it’s appropriate and necessary to begin a rulemaking to address a generic standard.”