Nuclear Regulators Back on Track

Things appear to be getting back to normal at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as four out of five commissioners — including the agency's new chairwoman, Allison Macfarlane — testified before two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees in an amiable joint hearing on Tuesday.

Following a year of turmoil at the agency under recently resigned Chairman Gregory Jaczko, Macfarlane's first testimony before Congress as head of the NRC was measured and cordial. She and her fellow commissioners appeared as a unified front, speaking to their newfound collegiality and addressing concerns from lawmakers about how Macfarlane, most recently a professor at George Mason University, can restore the image of the agency.

"The tone she is setting is constructive and is a most welcome opportunity," Republican Commissioner Kristine Svinicki said of Macfarlane, adding later that "there's an optimism moving forward" at the commission.

Svinicki and the other members of the commission clashed with Jaczko over the past year, questioning his management style and accusing him of berating commissioners and agency staff. After months of public turmoil, Jaczko resigned in May pending Senate confirmation of his replacement.

Macfarlane, who has only been on the job for two weeks now, seemed prepared for questions about how her leadership will differ from that of Jaczko, but when it came down to more substantive questions on nuclear safety, she often deferred to her fellow commissioners and explained that she still has much to learn.

Macfarlane called all of her colleagues "talented professionals" and expressed her "commitment to a collaborative work environment."

Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, R-Ill., at one point even exclaimed that Macfarlane really must be well-prepared since she has all the right answers.

Shimkus set the tone for a calm and at times humorous hearing.

"This is an opportunity, not to dwell on the past, but to look to the future through some of the important lessons of recent commission events and actions," Shimkus said in his opening statement.

Taking that cue, lawmakers for the most part refrained from digging into the controversy surrounding Jaczko's tenure.

Members on both sides of the aisle questioned Macfarlane and her colleagues on state-specific nuclear issues, on decisions regarding the now-closed waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, and on the commission's work on reforms based on lessons learned from last year's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan. While the agency has begun implementing some of those reforms, they still have a lot of work left.

Despite the general collegiality shown during the hearing, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said that he "seriously doubt[s]" that the commission will be all smooth sailing moving forward.

Markey, who at one time employed Jaczko and has defended him throughout the turmoil at the agency, warned Macfarlane not to give in to pressures from her fellow commissioners. "You have a very difficult job ahead of you, madam chair. And you need to keep in mind that your duty is not to win a popularity contest at the NRC with commissioners who disagree with the safety agenda," he lectured her.

"Don't be afraid to stick up for your guns and do what is right for the American people," Markey said. "For in the end, madam chair, your term as chairman will be judged on whether you have successfully completed the task of fully implementing the NRC task force recommendations on Fukushima, on ensuring that there is safety in the disposal of nuclear waste, and that will be your legacy."