Obama’s pick for nuke chief is Yucca Mountain opponent

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Moving quickly to stem a controversy, President Obama on Thursday picked as leader of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a scholar who has criticized the plan to store the nation’s nuclear waste at a Nevada mountain.

Allison Macfarlane, who served on a presidential commission that studied new strategies to manage nuclear waste, would replace Gregory Jaczko as NRC head.

Mr. Jaczko announced his resignation Monday after a tumultuous three-year tenure in which he came under fire for a management style that fellow commissioners and agency employees described as bullying. He also had been a staff member for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat and the leading opponent of the Yucca Mountain storage plan.

A White House spokesman said Mr. Obama thinks Ms. Macfarlane is the right person to lead the commission, calling her a highly regarded specialist who has spent years analyzing nuclear issues.

Ms. Macfarlane “understands the role that nuclear power must play in our nation’s energy future while ensuring that we are always taking steps to produce this important energy source safely and securely,” White House spokesman Clark Stevens said.

Mr. Stevens called the NRC crucial to protecting public health and safety and said Mr. Obama hopes the Senate considers her nomination quickly.

Ms. Macfarlane, 48, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, wrote a book in 2006 that raised technical questions about a proposed nuclear waste dump at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

Mr. Reid also praised Ms. Macfarlane as someone who will make nuclear safety a top priority. Macfarlane’s education and experience, especially her service on the blue-ribbon commission on nuclear waste, make her qualified to lead the NRC “for the foreseeable future,” the Nevadan said in a statement.

Mr. Reid said he continues to have concerns about Republican Kristine Svinicki, who has been nominated by Mr. Obama for a new term on the commission, but added that the two women should be considered together, continuing a recent Senate tradition of considering NRC nominees from opposing parties at the same time.

Ms. Svinicki, a nuclear engineer and former Senate GOP aide, was among four NRC commissioners who publicly criticized Mr. Jaczko’s management style last year. The commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans — sent a letter to the White House last fall expressing “grave concern” about Mr. Jaczko’s actions, which they said were abusive and “causing serious damage” to the commission.

No disciplinary action was taken against Mr. Jaczko, who has strongly denied the accusations.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, called Ms. Macfarlane “an active contributor to policy debates in the nuclear energy field for many years” and urged the Senate to confirm her nomination as soon as possible.

“It would not serve the public interest to have her nomination linger,” the group said. “We urge the Senate to confirm both Commissioner Svinicki and Professor Macfarlane expeditiously.”

Mr. Jaczko, a Democrat, announced his resignation ahead of a potentially blistering report due out soon from the agency’s inspector general, which has been investigating his actions for more than a year.

Mr. Jaczko was a favorite of anti-nuclear watchdog groups, who called his emphasis on safety a refreshing change from previous agency chiefs who were close to the nuclear industry or who came from it.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Environment Committee, said Ms. Macfarlane’s background and experience demonstrate a strong commitment to safety — a commitment she called especially important in the wake of the nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

Ms. Boxer said she will schedule a joint hearing on the two NRC nominees in June.

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