Nevada says no need for NRC chairwoman to recuse herself

WASHINGTON — There is no need for the leader of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to recuse herself from the Yucca Mountain case, according to attorneys for the state of Nevada coming to the defense of agency Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane.

While Macfarlane wrote about the proposed Nevada nuclear waste project and spoke about it years before joining the NRC in 2012, that alone is not enough to disqualify her, the Nevada representatives said.

The statements “do not establish the appearance that she has demonstrably made up her mind about important and specific factual questions, has a closed mind or is impervious to contrary evidence,” the state said in a 13-page legal document filed Friday with the NRC.

Macfarlane, a geologist who was Senate-confirmed as NRC chairwoman to fill a vacancy in 2012 and reconfirmed this year to a full five-year term, has been asked to remove herself from Yucca matters by leaders in Nevada’s Nye County. The rural county favors reviving the nuclear waste site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas that the Obama administration shelved in 2009.

The NRC was ordered by a federal court this month to resume license hearings for the site. Nye County challenged whether Macfarlane, who leads the agency’s five-member board, could be impartial due to writings and public statements that questioned its suitability.

In a 2006 book of technical essays she co-edited, Macfarlane expressed doubt the Department of Energy could build a clear picture whether the volcanic rock at Yucca Mountain could safely entomb thousands of tons of highly radioactive waste for tens of thousands of years.

In a 2009 interview published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, her alma mater, Macfarlane said technical objections to the site “are serious and real.”

But attorneys for Nevada said the MIT article appeared five years ago, and the book she prepared, called “Uncertainty Underground,” was even older, and was based on science research conducted early in the decade.

Questioned in Congress last year, Macfarlane said she had not read more recent technical evaluations of Yucca Mountain, and would have “an open mind.” Nevada attorneys said Macfarlane should be taken at her word, and that Nye County has not shown that Macfarlane “has a closed mind on Yucca Mountain matters.”

NRC practice leaves it to Macfarlane to decide whether to remove herself from the case, an agency spokesman has said.

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