Radioactive Waste Expert Nominated to Be Top U.S. Nuclear Regulator

Chosen. If confirmed by U.S. Senate, Allison Macfarlane would become chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Evan Cantwell/George Mason University News Service

President Barack Obama today nominated a geologist and nuclear waste expert with strong ties to academia to be the next head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The choice of Allison Macfarlane, a professor at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia, is drawing positive reviews from key members of Congress and both supporters and critics of nuclear power.

If confirmed by the Senate, Macfarlane would replace Gregory Jaczko, a physicist and former aide to Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate's Majority Leader. Jaczko announced on 21 May that he would step down following controversy over his management style and policy positions. He had been a controversial figure since joining the commission in 2005.

"The nuclear energy industry urges the administration to submit her confirmation paperwork as expeditiously as possible," Marvin Fertel, head of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry group, said in a statement. Macfarlane "has been an active contributor to policy debates in the nuclear energy field for many years," he added.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a leading critic of the industry, also applauded the pick. "Professor Macfarlane is a scientist with a long history of working on complex technical public policy issues," the group said. "We expect her to be a strong advocate for practical steps to enhance nuclear power safety and security."

Macfarlane's "education and experience … make her eminently qualified to lead the NRC for the foreseeable future," said Reid, a leading opponent of a recently shelved plan to open a nuclear waste repository in Nevada. He said he hopes to move her nomination for approval by the full Senate by the end of June.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK), the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told reporters that she would be examining Macfarlane's record before making a decision. But she was pleased that the White House had moved quickly to replace Jaczko.

Macfarlane is a veteran of nuclear power policy debates. After earning a 1992 doctorate in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, she held a variety of academic posts at top-tier U.S. universities, including MIT, Harvard, and Stanford. She joined GMU in 2006, and in 2010 the Obama Administration picked her to serve on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, which in January issued recommendations on how to break the gridlock in the United States over building new nuclear power plants and disposing of nuclear waste.