NRC chief seeks distance from Yucca criticism

WASHINGTON - The new chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission distanced herself Tuesday from earlier criticism of Yucca Mountain, telling lawmakers she will have an "open mind" on the project still lingering at the agency.

Allison Macfarlane, a geologist who has studied the Nevada site, expressed skepticism about Yucca Mountain in a 2006 book she co-edited. In 2009, she told an interviewer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology she thought the site was geologically unsuitable to store nuclear waste.

But when questioned during her first appearance on Capitol Hill since she was sworn in July 9 to lead the nuclear safety body, Macfarlane sought to temper those views. She said she wanted to update herself on the controversial project as she sets out in her new position.

Macfarlane said research she conducted on the proposed nuclear waste site was technically sound, but her view was based largely on science conducted a decade ago. She said she had not read the 2008 license application for the site nor more recent NRC staff technical evaluations.

"Of course, over time knowledge changes and new evidence comes to light, and I intend to keep an open mind," she said. She told reporters afterward there was "always a possibility" her mind could change.

Macfarlane's answer seemed to satisfy members of two House energy subcommittees that are dominated by lawmakers who want the Yucca Mountain project resurrected after it was terminated by President Barack Obama.

A repository license application remains suspended at the NRC while a federal appeals court weighs a lawsuit that seeks to force the agency to revive it.

Macfarlane, who appeared alongside three other NRC commissioners, was largely noncommittal on most issues during the hearing, and she read from prepared responses to some anticipated questions. She was welcomed by Republicans who were critical of her predecessor, Gregory Jaczko.

Noting Macfarlane's criticism of the Yucca site, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., challenged her to recuse herself for a year on Yucca Mountain matters, as Jaczko did during his first year as an NRC commissioner.

Macfarlane declined to commit to a blanket recusal, saying she would evaluate individual issues as they come up.

Macfarlane, who served on the Obama administration's expert commission on nuclear waste, also demurred when asked by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, if she had a view to share on what should be done with Yucca Mountain.

"At this point I do not," Macfarlane responded. "I will wait to see what issues are presented to us as a commission."

"Fair enough - for the first time you are here," Barton said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.