The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is supposed to be an independent regulator with the mission of regulating the use of radioactive materials to adequately protect public safety, promote the common defense and security, and protect the environment. Unfortunately, the Commission has become a political battle ground that makes life difficult for the people appointed to lead the agency.
The challenging environment at the top cannot help but trickle down to the staff where important technical work and safety oversight is supposed to be the primary task.
Dr. Allison Macfarlane, the current chairman of the NRC, announced yesterday that she was stepping down at the end of 2014 to return to academia. She will become the Director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University. Instead of engaging in stressful public testimony where people who are supposedly her political allies — I’m looking at you, Senator Boxer — question her integrity, she will return to her chosen profession and spend time teaching students, writing thoughtful papers and organizing conferences on important public issues.
Though it has not been discussed much in public, I suspect that Dr. Macfarlane has received some nasty direct or indirect communications from Senator Reid associated with her inability to find some devious way to stop last week’s release of volume 3 of the Safety Evaluation Report for the Yucca Mountain waste repository.
I’m throwing out a wild guess, but perhaps Reid loudly compared that release to the more successful, albeit illegal, maneuvers that Greg Jaczko initiated in order to halt the license review process in the first place.
Though I was critical of Dr. Macfarlane’s initial appointment based on her lack of management experience and her tangential “nuclear” experience as a geologist interested in final disposal of nuclear material, I’ve been impressed by her ability to create a more productive atmosphere and to repair some of the damage done by her predecessor. She is a straightforward person who approaches issues thoughtfully and independently.
Unfortunately, in today’s virulently partisan political environment, independent thinking is rarely rewarded or even encouraged. Too many of today’s elected officials take the position of “you’re either for me or against me.”
Dr. Macfarlane, please accept my apologies and my best wishes in your future endeavors. You’ve done well under trying conditions that should not exist. Those who should remain outside of the process once appointments have been made seem to be motivated to make an already difficult job into an almost impossible job.