Joint Senate Hearing on NRC Nominees Expected in Second Week of June

Robert Loux, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, listens to Allison MacFarlane, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology research assistant, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, March 1, 2006, during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository.  (AP Photo/Dennis Cook) (National Journal)

A joint confirmation hearing on the nominations of Allison Macfarlane and Kristine Svinicki to seats on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected in the second week of June, according to sources on and off Capitol Hill.

After the surprise resignation announcement of NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko early last week, the White House swiftly nominated Macfarlane, a George Mason University professor, as his successor, with her chairmanship effective upon confirmation. The development opened up room for compromise on the reappointment of Svinicki, a Republican whose current term on the commission expires June 30. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have previously criticized Svinicki's renomination.

"I believe the best interests of the public would be served by moving the nominations of Dr. Macfarlane and Ms. Svinicki together before Ms. Svinicki's term expires at the end of June, to ensure that we have a fully functioning NRC," Reid said last week, changing his tune a bit on Svinicki's reappointment. With her term expiring at the end of June, Republicans have been scrambling to make sure that Svinicki is confirmed before a vacancy occurs on the commission, which oversees the nation's 104 nuclear power plants.

Boxer told National Journal last week that she plans to hold a hearing on both nominees "soon after" the Memorial Day recess. But with time running out on Svinicki's term and both nominations still needing floor votes, sources close to the negotiations say that Boxer will likely hold the hearing on June 12, 13, or 14. Boxer's office would not confirm those dates.

Hearings are usually posted on the committee's website a week in advance, so an official announcement from Boxer's office can be expected next week, sources said.

"I think that's when Senator Boxer was saying she'd like to have it," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "We agree with the president that there should be no break in service for Svinicki's seat," he added, referring to the administration's repeated remarks that a fully functioning NRC is necessary at such a crucial time for the nuclear industry. The agency has been most recently dealing with licensing the first new reactors in decades and implementing reforms based on lessons learned from last year's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan.

The Senate's ongoing deliberations about the nominations was a major reason the House Energy and Commerce Committee shelved a hearing on the NRC that had been planned for Thursday. Leaders of the House panel had planned to use the hearing to pressure the White House to replace Jaczko and renominate Svinicki, but in the wake of Jaczko's announcement and swift appointment of a successor, they decided it was best not to rock the boat when "the ship is sailing smoothly," a lobbyist with close ties to House GOP leadership told National Journal.

Jaczko's leadership, which was challenged by the other four commissioners late last year, could still be an issue at the confirmation hearing for Macfarlane and Svinicki, however. The Office of the Inspector General at the NRC has been investigating the agency's management and a report is expected at any time, possibly before the Senate hearings.

The report will specifically delve into the leadership controversy at the agency late last year, when the other four commissioners complained to the White House that the chairman has bullied staff, verbally abused women, and hindered communications at the agency. An IG report out last June already had criticized Jaczko for not being "forthcoming" with his fellow commissioners leading up to the shutdown of the controversial nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

The confirmation hearing for Svinicki and Macfarlane is also likely to delve into Yucca Mountain on two other fronts. Reid and Boxer have both charged that Svinicki misled Congress in a 2007 hearing about her work on the now-defunct waste repository, and the committee's Democrats are expected to question her record on nuclear safety.

But the cross-examination will come from both sides. Lawmakers are also expected to focus on Macfarlane's record as a well-known critic of Yucca Mountain. Macfarlane, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason, wrote a book in 2006 raising questions about the safety of the waste site. House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., has already dismissed her as an "anti-nuclear activist," but Macfarlane herself has said that she sees nuclear power as necessary to combat climate change.