Dr. Allison Macfarlane, an associate professor at George Mason University, with a PhD in Geology from MIT, has been nominated by President Obama to be both a Commissioner and the new Chairman of the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency. If the President does not change his mind, that decision alone will be enough to turn me into a fervent supporter of anyone BUT Obama. If the Senate confirms Dr. Macfarlane for the increasingly important post, it will be enough to make me start investigating ways to become a citizen of another country.
The key consideration has nothing to do with stated positions on “issues” and everything to do with my strong desire for the country that I defended for 33 years in the US naval service to return to a seemingly forgotten policy of making informed personnel decisions that result in the selection of competent leaders and managers. If we want our country to be a place where our children have a future that is at least as good as the past that we have had since WWII, we must move past partisanship and toward more mature decision making.
Dr. Macfarlane is a college professor, an author and an activist. Nothing I have read about Dr. Macfarlane indicates that she has ever managed anyone, but the President has nominated her to be the executive decision maker for a federal agency with a budget of nearly $1 billion, a staff of more than 4,000 highly trained professionals and regulatory authority over an industry with a current annual output that is worth more than $100 billion. The Nuclear Regulatory Agency does not just regulate nuclear power plants; it is also responsible for regulating uranium and thorium mining, a substantial portion of nuclear medicine, and use of radioactive sources in a wide variety of industries.
I have nothing against academia; during my eclectic career I spent 2 years as a college instructor and 2 additional years on a campus as part of the support staff. College campuses are wonderful places where it is possible to develop excellent leadership skills, but not through the acts teaching and publishing. Leadership skills develop through both study and experience in being responsible for other people’s output, for facilities, and for budgets.
During Greg Jaczko’s three year tenure as the Chairman of the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, he taught people who pay attention just how much power the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 gave the Chairman. When first enacted, the Atomic Energy Act spread the authority over the regulation of nuclear energy among a deliberative body of five essentially equal members with one of them designated as the Chairman to run the meetings.
However, the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 gave the Chairman executive powers over the agency’s budget and gave the person in the position emergency powers that are almost dictatorial in any case where the Chairman decides that an emergency exists – even if situation takes place several thousand miles away from the nearest regulated facility and even if the Chairman never informs fellow commissioners of the assumption of that emergency power.
As a career military officer who attended one of our nation’s finest institutions of leadership training, the U. S. Naval Academy, the importance of demonstrated performance in positions of increasing responsibility has been deeply engrained in the way I look at the world. However, my experience is not limited to the US military; I took a detour in the middle of my career to attempt to become an entrepreneur. My six years in business and as the leader of a moderately sized volunteer organization showed me that both management and leadership are critical, hard-to-develop skills that must be present at the top of any successful organization.
I was disappointed in the immediate, mostly favorable response to the announcement of Allison Macfarlane as Gregory Jaczko’s replacement that was released by the Nuclear Energy Institute and quoted by ANS Nuclear Cafe.. Perhaps the NEI leadership has spent too much time inside the Beltway in recent years where incompetent leaders are too often selected in our broken political process.
My fervent hope is that a groundswell of informed opposition to the appointment rises quickly. It needs to come from people who recognize the importance of competent government executives, especially those who will be serving in key decision making roles in organizations like the NRC, which is the monopoly gate keeper for a vital ultra low carbon energy technology. It needs to come from people who have worked with Dr. Macfarlane and can testify that her PhD in geology does not indicate any technical competence associated with the safe use of nuclear energy or radioactive materials. (Eric, I am talking to you.)
It needs to come from the states who are currently in litigation with the federal government over breach of contract – a decision that was made to serve the political agenda of a single Senator from a state with a population so small that it only rates three congressional districts and five votes in the Electoral College.
It also needs to come from people inside the nuclear non-proliferation community where Dr. Macfarlane has spent much of her time – they need to share what they know about the technical versus political branches of that community and Dr. Macfarlane’s card carrying membership of the latter.
Dr. Steve Skutnik, who blogs at The Neutron Economy, has started the ball rolling from that community with his post titled A closer look at Jazcko’s replacement. Here is a quote from that contribution to the discussion:
Much of MacFarlane’s background has been associated with what I term the “political” wing of the nonproliferation community – the other being the “technical” side (where my background is from). Her affiliations include the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard (not exactly a hotbed of pro-nuclear activity or solid technical analysis at that), home of well-known academic nuclear critic Matthew Bunn, as well as being a regular co-author with Frank Von Hippel (someone also not known for his warm feelings for nuclear energy – although a perfectly pleasant person in real life.)
Nonproliferation tends to get a poor reputation among nuclear professionals and advocates, precisely due to the “political” wing, who tend to focus on opposing any nuclear technology seen as “proliferant,” which in turn lends itself to the anti-nuclear strategy of “bottle-necking” – in other words, “constipate” the nuclear fuel cycle and then complain loudly of the “lack of solutions” for nuclear waste (despite the plethora of available technical options).
Bottom line. This is not a time for cynicism or fatalism. We still live in a great country that has a terrific set of governing documents that include delineation of both executive authority and a system of advice and consent from a body of mature people. We have people in positions of responsibility who do understand the importance of careful personnel selection processes and who recognize the risk of appointing a completely unqualified person to a position of responsibility. (I am talking to you, Senator Carper, Senator Tom Udall, Senator Alexander and Senator Sessions.)
I believe that the Macfarlane announcement was a typical Washington, DC trial balloon that needs to be punctured as quickly as possible so that the President can demonstrate one of the fundamental skills of a good leader – the ability to recognize and correct mistakes quickly and efficiently. No one is perfect and no leader or manager should ever be so vain as to think that they are.
Just in case has either forgotten or never recognized what can happen when an incompetent person is appointed to a position of authority, I suggest that many of Jaczko’s management style issues can be traced to the fact that he was appointed to a position for which he had no knowledge, experience or professional qualifications. It is not uncommon in such circumstances for people to resort to management by intimidation and bullying in order to cover their feelings of inadequacy and enact an ill-informed agenda.
Additional Background Information
The Atomic Show #061 – Allison Macfarlane, Atomic Agnostic (Recorded on June 15, 2007)