A number of people who have read of my opposition to the appointment of Dr. Allison Macfarlane to be the Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission have counseled me to passively accept a “done deal” because they believe it is obvious that the fix has been in for quite some time. They think that since Senator Harry Reid, Congressman Ed Markey, and Professor Frank Von Hipple say that Dr. Macfarlane is the right person for the job that there is no way to derail the process.
Some of my colleagues in the pronuclear blogger community have offered similar advice and analysis. They say that since the NEI has announced that they are not opposed to Dr. Macfarlane being nominated as long as Kristine Svinicki is reappointed that perhaps she is not such bad fit for the job. They have told me that the NEI knows Washington and knows how to play the political game better than I do.
Perhaps I am just being stubborn, but I have decided to reject those suggestions for passive acceptance. As I have noted in the comment thread here and elsewhere, I think that Dr. Macfarlane would be an acceptable Commissioner. However, the position of Chairman is a completely different proposition.
As for NRC Chairman Dale Klein, told Bloomberg.com in an interview for a story titled Obama’s Pick For Nuclear Safety Cop Seen Shunning Confrontation, leading the NRC is not a place for “on the job training.”
There are other voices besides mine that are joining the “not so fast” chorus. Dr. Robert Zubrin wrote an op-ed for the National Review titled,
Red Alert: Don’t Confirm Allison Macfarlane as NRC Head. Here is a quote from that commentary:
Allison Macfarlane is the author of the book Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High Level Nuclear Waste. This book, which is endorsed by antinuclear activist Victor Gilinsky, makes the absurd argument that rather than risk unknown consequences 10,000 years in the future should geological conditions affecting remote underground desert repositories change, that high level nuclear waste should continue to be stored in cooling ponds adjacent to nuclear power plants located near heavily populated urban and suburban areas. Thus for Macfarlane, as for Jaczko, the clear goal is to not to make nuclear power as safe as possible — which is the purpose of the NRC — but to make it as unsafe as possible — which is the agenda of those seeking to shut down the nuclear industry.
Aside: I happen to completely disagree with Zubrin’s assertion that leaving used fuel where it is is somehow unsafe. It is resting comfortably, just waiting to be moved – once – to the location where it will be recycled into new fuel that will power many future generations of human society. I believe that the real aim of the people seeking to shut down the nuclear industry is to make it as expensive as possible so that their favorite fuels (coal, gas and oil) have a better chance of retaining profitable market share. End Aside.
One comment that you might not find anywhere else comes from Alan Waltar, a past president of the American Nuclear Society, the technical society of nuclear energy professionals. Since his retirement from academia and the national labs, Alan has been one of the driving forces behind the World Nuclear University (WNU), an annual gathering of rising nuclear professionals from around the globe. When he sent the below message to an email list to which I subscribe, he was in South Korea for the 2012 WNU Summer Institute. He was reacting to a message from Dave that shared a link to the May 25, 2012 NY Times editorial about President Obama’s decision to nominate Dr. Macfarlane. (I have permission from Alan to attribute his quote, but not from Dave.)
Remember when the AEC and NRC were established as the regulators for nuclear power safety? The idea was to keep politics out. The agency was not to decide or force decisions on whether to have nuclear power or not but only on safety. We saw this concept trashed by other presidents, but this is simply blatant politics!
– – Dave
I’m here in Korea for the World Nuclear University Radiation Technology School.
Virtually everyone here familiar with the situation (faculty and students from numerous nations) agree that the way Jaczko handled the Fukushima situation was no less than disastrous! In a situation where NO ONE (including the workers at the plant) will suffer any life-shortening effects from radiation, Jaczko both embarrassed the Japanese and further contributed to the incredible suffering of some 80,000 Japanese people due to the absurd fear of radiation.
Treating him as a hero for nuclear safety is a highly misled conclusion!
Everyone who understands that atomic fission is the only available alternative to fossil fuels that is both reliable and produces power with ultra-low carbon emissions and virtually no other air or water pollution needs to recognize that appointing an NRC Chairman is not a trivial matter. The person in the job can impose tens of billions of dollars in extra costs and can tie the monopoly provider of operating licenses up in knots. He or she can declare an emergency and seize almost dictatorial powers. The Chairman controls the budget and the agenda of the Commission.
Those are tools that do not belong in the hands of a person whose major claim to the job is that she shuns confrontation. In the battle over public acceptance of nuclear energy, advocates tend to be non confrontational anyway. Someone who shuns confrontation runs the risk of allowing the antinuclear industry to set the agenda because the people who oppose the use of nuclear energy have proven that they are not afraid of being aggressive.
Macfarlane’s only technical expertise related to nuclear energy is a series of papers that collectively claim that recycling used nuclear fuel is too expensive, that Yucca Mountain is too seismically active, that reducing chemistry is better than oxidizing chemistry for storing used nuclear fuel, and that burying plutonium is better than using it for beneficial power production.
The democratic process does not stop at the voting booths. The opposition to nuclear energy understands that steady and occasionally confrontational pressure on elected and appointed leaders is needed in order to enact a change in policy direction. Nuclear advocates need to learn the same lessons and stop abandoning the political playing field before the game has even begun.