NRC Chairman to Resign on January 1

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Publication date: 
22 October 2014

Allison Macfarlane, Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, announced yesterday that she will resign from her position on January 1, 2015.  Macfarlane will become the Director of George Washington University’s Center for International Science and Technology Policy.

Macfarlane became NRC chairman on July 2012 when former chairman Gregory Jaczko left before completing the fifth year of his term.  She was renominated by President Obama and began her five year term in June 2013.

Among the many matters NRC has dealt with has been the high-profile and very contentious battle over the proposed geologic repository at Yucca Mountain Nevada for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste.  In June 2009, then Secretary of Energy Steven Chu told House appropriators “I think Yucca Mountain as a long-term repository is definitely off the table.”  The repository has long been opposed by members of Nevada’s congressional delegation, most notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).  Through a series of controversial moves, Jaczko effectively suspended NRC’s review of the repository.  Last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered that the commission continue this review.  Earlier this month, the NRC released a 781-page report on the safety of Yucca Mountain repository after it would be closed.  A commission statement on the report, one of several on the repository, explained:

“Volume 3 covers the period after a repository at Yucca Mountain would be permanently closed should NRC authorize construction following completion of the remaining steps in the licensing process. Volume 3 contains the staff’s finding that the Department of Energy’s repository design meets the requirements that apply after the repository is permanently closed, including but not limited to the post-closure performance objectives in NRC’s regulations. . . . These performance objectives include the requirement that the repository be composed of multiple barriers to isolate radioactivity from the environment. The staff also found the proposed repository design meets the NRC’s limits or standards . . . for individual protection, human intrusion and groundwater protection.”

The statement also noted:

“Publication of Volume 3 does not signal whether the NRC might authorize construction of the repository. A final licensing decision, should funds beyond those currently available be appropriated, could come only after completion of the safety evaluation report, a supplement to the Department of Energy’s environmental impact statement, hearings on contentions in the adjudication, and Commission review.”

The NRC published Volume 1 in August 2010.  It expects to release three additional volumes by January 15.

Reacting to the release of Volume 3, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) stated:

“The release of this game-changing report marks a critical milestone in restoring America’s nuclear leadership. Science, not politics, should determine Yucca’s course, and this report confirms that Yucca Mountain has met the safety requirements. After a four-year delay, the public now has the benefit of the first independent safety assessment of Yucca Mountain, and can now have confidence that the repository would be in fact ‘safe for a million years.’ This safety evaluation embodies the objective, technical conclusions of our nation’s independent nuclear safety regulator, and it represents the culmination of thirty years and $15 billion worth of scientific work by DOE and seven of our national scientific labs. I am pleased that this important work has finally come to light so we can move forward with a permanent repository and get our nation's nuclear future back on track.”

House Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-IL) commented:

“Yucca Mountain is one of the most studied geological formations on the planet and today’s report confirms what we’ve expected all along: nuclear waste stored under that mountain, in that desert, surrounded by federal land will be safe and secure for at least a million years. I want to commend the NRC technical staff for all their hard work in completing and publishing this milestone achievement. Their work to complete this national asset is a testament to their commitment to public service, one that I admire and greatly appreciate. The conclusions in this report should only add to the bipartisan support the repository has consistently received in both the House and Senate.”

Democratic members of the committee did not issue a statement about the release of the NRC report.

House appropriators continue to take a strong stand against the Obama Administration’s efforts to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository.  In June, Senate appropriators did not refer to Yucca Mountain by name, instead stating:

“Permanent geologic disposal, still the scientific consensus for ultimate disposition of these materials, is more than 3 decades away, whatever site is ultimately chosen. Therefore, to spur near-term progress on this issue, the Committee again includes a general provision in section 308 of this [FY2015 Energy and Water Development] bill authorizing the Department of Energy to develop a pilot program for a consolidated storage facility, pending enactment of more comprehensive legislation.”

Macfarlane did not refer to Yucca Mountain in her October 21 statement, selections of which follow:

“I came to the Commission with the mission of righting the ship after a tumultuous period for the Commission, and ensuring that the agency implemented lessons learned from the tragic accident at Fukushima Daiichi, so that the American people can be confident that such an accident will never take place here. With these key objectives accomplished, I am now returning to academia as Director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University. At George Washington, I will continue to work on nuclear safety and security and for a better public dialogue on nuclear technology through my teaching and writing as well as by training a new generation of specialists in this area.

“It has been a great privilege to serve with the men and women who work for the NRC and public safety with such dedication. I came to the agency as an outsider, but leave with warm feelings for the many friends I have made here. The NRC staff display on a daily basis how seriously they take their responsibility as regulators and I have valued the time I spent with them. I now understand why the Commission is regularly listed as one of the best federal agencies to work for in government.”


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