The fix is in – Macfarlane will be confirmed, despite lack of ANY technical or management experience

I just finished watching the archived video of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the nominations of Dr. Allison Macfarlane to be a Commissioner and Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Kristine Svinicki to serve an additional five year term as a Commissioner.

It was disheartening to see that the Senate’s role of advice and consent had apparently been negotiated away before the hearing ever started. Though never even close to perfect, I pride myself on a developed ability to read between the lines of written material and to listen for the words that are not spoken by watching body language and listening carefully to the words that are spoken. Once I have a chance to do some editing and clipping, I will post videos that back up my impression that deals have already been struck to ensure that both Dr. Macfarlane and Ms. Svinicki are expeditiously confirmed.

The thing that was most disheartening to me was that the people who had apparently agreed to accept Dr. Macfarlane, despite reservations about her qualifications for the job, treated her with kid gloves while the people who apparently agreed that Ms. Svinicki could be confirmed for another term took the opportunity to do everything in their power to discredit her.

It was obvious to me that they are continuing a program of implying that she is not sufficiently concerned about nuclear safety. Ms. Svinicki has a solid and admirable record as an honest, thoughtful commissioner who takes her job very seriously. She understands the technology, understands the importance of safe operations, and recognizes that there are limitations to the NRC’s role. Senator Boxer and Senator Sanders deserve castigation for making attempts to create any other impression of her service.

Getting back to the deal: As I understand it, the Inspector General’s report on the management actions taken by Dr. Greg Jaczko during his tenure is complete and ready for release. It has been bureaucratically delayed because it is a real doozy of a report with plenty of evidence backing up the assertions that have been made that Jaczko established a hostile work environment. Nuclear industry supporters have an interest in helping the NRC to move past the report because the distraction is not beneficial to current operations or their reelection efforts.

The Senate hearing to confirm Jaczko’s nominated replacement was put on a fast track; the time frame for additional questions by committee members is an amazingly shortened 24 hours and the final votes are scheduled for Monday, June 18. It is worth remembering that Jaczko only submitted his resignation on May 21; the political train has been moving in high speed to get him replaced before the IG report is made public and damages the credibility of the office of the Chairman of the NRC.

By having a replacement in office before the report is released, my impression is that the powers that be are planning to sweep the report as far under the carpet as possible and to move forward in hopes that few people remember. Unfortunately, his replacement seems to be another compliant representative of the forces opposed to effective use of nuclear energy.

I did not sign on to any deals and I am not a part of any establishment entity that will benefit from forgetting the following facts about the Jaczko era:

  • As a commissioner, Dr. Jaczko led the effort to impose the aircraft impact rule, a requirement that burdens all new construction projects with costs and requirements that were not imposed on current plants.
  • Dr. Jaczko took nearly dictatorial control of the NRC for several months on the pretense of responding to an emergency, even though that emergency did not affect any licensee of the NRC.
  • Dr. Jaczko testified to the Congress of the United States that the spent fuel pool for unit #4 of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was dry and on fire.
  • Dr. Jaczko used that false statement of the situation as a pretense for recommending that all Americans within 50 miles of the plant evacuate. That established a perception in the minds of the public that nuclear reactors pose a danger to people as far away as fifty miles. Nuclear energy skeptics like Senator Barbara Boxer have been striving for years to expand the circle of perceived danger around nuclear plants
  • Dr. Jaczko continually requested ever lower budgets for the NRC and then used “budgetary constraints” as an excuse to enforce his policy of killing the Yucca Mountain license application, slowing the reviews of new license applications and slowing the reviews of license renewals.
  • Dr. Jaczko used his control of the NRC agenda to delay votes and to prevent information from reaching his fellow Commissioners in a timely manner.
  • Dr. Jaczko held several meetings with antinuclear activists while excluding anyone with a different view of nuclear energy by claiming that anyone who advocates for nuclear energy must be a “nuclear industry supporter.”

(Note: Not one of those above statements or any of the other statements that I have published about Dr. Jaczko are personal. They are statements of fact or opinion about his professional choices and performance.)

Though she testified to the Senate that our current output of nuclear electricity is important and that nuclear energy should continue to supply about 20% of our electrical demand, Dr. Macfarlane seems unaware that actions by her predecessor virtually ensure that US nuclear electricity output will fall during the next few years. Vermont Yankee, Indian Point 1 and 2, Pilgrim and Oyster Creek may all be forced to shut down before any new facilities start operating. San Onofre 1 and 2, Crystal River, and Fort Calhoun are already shut down and unlikely to restart any time in the near future.

In my opinion, the people who made the deal to accept Dr. Macfarlane in order to keep the peace, protect what is left of the reputation of the NRC, and to prevent a nasty battle over the real meaning of protecting the public health and safety made a bad deal. As Chairman, Dr. Macfarlane will be operating without the fundamental knowledge and experience required for good decision making, but she will be expected to make decisions.

She will be forced to depend on others – which I admit is often the case for any leader in a complex organization – but like all leaders she has the authority to choose her trusted advisors.

There is no doubt in my military mind to whom she will listen when she is making her decisions. Her CV and coauthors tell me all I need to know about her lack of applicable experience and her record of association with people who doubt that nuclear energy has an important role that must expand if the world is going to achieve a higher level of prosperity without choking off the earth’s ability to support our current human population and man-made infrastructure.

About Rod Adams

8 Responses to “The fix is in – Macfarlane will be confirmed, despite lack of ANY technical or management experience”

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  1. Marc Paff says:

    I watched the hearing live yesterday, and was very confused by some of the statements by Senator Sanders. What “secret” commission votes was he talking about? As a nuclear engineering student, I have frequently been interested in seeing how commissioners voted on license renewals and new plant applications, and have always been able to find their voting records either as written releases or videos on the NRC website, as Commissioner Svinicki pointed out in her response to Senator Sanders. So what exactly is “undemocratic” and nontransparent about this, according to Senator Sanders?

    Hopefully one day we can get more Senators like Lamar Alexander, and fewer liker Barbara Boxer. She seemed desperate to try to twist any of Svinicki’s statements to make her look like some sort of dangerous loose cannon. Bernie Sanders simply illustrates that we have too many senile grumpy men in Congress.

  2. Brian Mays says:

    She will be forced to depend on others – which I admit is often the case for any leader in a complex organization – but like all leaders she has the authority to choose her trusted advisors.

    I’m willing to bet that she’ll have Gilinsky’s number on speed-dial.

  3. Brian Mays says:

    Welcome to politics. It usually involves compromise.

    Fortunately, Macfarlane’s tenure as NRC Chairman could be very short. Currently, she’s only filling in for the rest of Jaczko’s term. The elections in November could have a large effect here. Next year, Obama might not be in the White House, which would mean that Macfarlane almost certainly will not remain the chair. The Democrats could lose control of the Senate next year, which would reduce Reid’s power.

    In any case, Reid is sure not to be the Senate Majority Leader in 2015. So these setbacks are temporary.

  4. Blubba says:

    I believe Dr. Gail Marcus posted an insightful blog awhile back pointing out that some past NRC commissioners have been businessmen or lawyers or scientists with little prior exposure to nuclear power. At this point the primary criterion that matters to me is that the individual not be Harry Reid’s meat puppet. By all appearances Dr. McFarlane’s concerns regarding Yucca Mountain are her own and are not politically motivated.

  5. Joffan says:

    I’m firmly in the wait-and-see camp regarding Dr Macfarlane’s performance in the NRC chair.

    There are a few issues, it seems, where one side feels no constraint towards polite engagement and the other side is expected to be ultra-deferential. Nuclear power is certainly one such. It’s an unhealthy state for a reasonable debate to take place.

  6. Rick Maltese says:

    I agree Rod. It does seem staged to appear like they are mulling it over. The amount of time given to each question by Senator Alexander seemed ludicrous. As a matter of fact the senators did more talking than the candidates. Why limit each Senator to six minutes? Check out my latest post on the History of Nuclear Waste

  7. EL says:

    “I pride myself on a developed ability to read between the lines of written material and to listen for the words that are not spoken by watching body language and listening carefully to the words that are spoken.”

    Rod … I’m curious why you view this body language, personal demeanor, and reading between the lines as “a fix” against the interests of nuclear (if this is what you seem to be suggesting). To me, after watching all two hours of the hearing (ugh), it looks like she was put forward as a consensus candidate to help fix some of the problems of leadership on the Commission (namely, the adversarial relationship among some of the commissioners). The Senators appear to be getting exactly what they think the Commission needs at this particular point in time (Sessions, Alexander, and Inhofe included). Someone who is soft in their demeanor, relatively unspecific about their goals (“agnostic” about many matters before the Commission), and will keep an open mind and be deferential to process. Her background and training in academia seems perfectly suited to this role.

    I have no doubt she will advance many of the policy goals of the administration: licensing of new power plants, research and development of small modular reactors, adequate regulation and safe oversight (response to Fukushima), interim storage and spent fuel consolidation, and move the ball forward on long term storage alternatives (breaking through many of the impediments in political fealty, scientific justification, and a “consent based” process with many challenges ahead). I really don’t think nuclear would fare any better under a Republican administration (and the record over the last 11 years seems to bear this out). Romney has said absolutely nothing about nuclear power, and has given every indication that he wishes to further the policies of the previous administration that marginalized nuclear, and placed oil and natural gas at the forefront of national policies and interests. Perhaps this is a subtext worth considering. If you saw kid gloves here, perhaps it was tacit support from pro-nuclear Senators on the Committee (NEI as well), and an awareness that Obama is probably the best thing the nuclear industry has going for it. It remains for the industry to deliver power plants on time and on budget (and gain significant interest from the private sector as a consequence). It’s no secret that Big Oil and Natural Gas are major stakeholders in the Romney campaign. If you don’t think this will have a consequence for nuclear, I think you have start looking a little closer at the body language, personal demeanor, and between the lines of this Committee Hearing (or the political rhetoric and balance sheet of the national campaign in general).

  8. Joffan says:

    Thought I’d just come back to this post to leave some encouraging signs of improved conditions at the NRC under Macfarlane – early days of course, but…
    In prepared testimony, Macfarlane said U.S. reactors face no imminent risks and that additional requirements will be imposed on power companies to assure nuclear facilities are able to cope with “beyond-design-basis” natural disasters. She said she began to meet regularly with her commissioner colleagues, drawing a contrast between her and Jaczko.

    “I make this commitment to you today: I will devote all my energies to serving on the NRC with the attributes that I consider important to good governance — openness, efficiency and transparency,” she said in testimony. “I will make a strong commitment to collegiality at all levels. An agency endowed with the public trust such as the NRC requires a respectful working environment to assure its integrity.”

    Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, who joined the NRC during the Bush administration, said the tone Macfarlane has set in two weeks is constructive and “most welcome.”