NRC nominees advance in Senate

The prospective new chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission took a step closer Thursday to becoming Senate-confirmed.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved Allison Macfarlane to lead the nuclear safety agency, where she would replace Gregory Jaczko, who announced last month he was resigning after a tumultuous run as chairman.

Macfarlane’s nomination was sent to the full Senate, which is expected by the end of the month to confirm her. A geologist by profession and an expert on nuclear waste, Macfarlane is associate professor of environmental science at George Mason University.

Macfarlane was approved by voice vote among committee members, although Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., asked to be noted as voting yes, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., noted he was voting no.

During Macfarlane’s confirmation hearing last week, Sessions said he was concerned about her lack of management experience and wondered how she would handle an agency of more than 4,000 people.

Macfarlane would fill out Jaczko’s term that expires at the end of next June. She would head the agency’s governing board that consists of five members who serve staggered terms.

Also approved by voice vote Thursday was Kristine Svinicki, an NRC commissioner who was nominated by President Barack Obama for a second five-year term on the agency board.

While Svinicki, a nuclear engineer, also was cleared by voice vote, Alexander and Sessions asked to be recorded as voting in favor. Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and chairwoman Barbara Boxer of California wanted it noted they were opposing her. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont also asked to be recorded in opposition.

Svinicki, a Republican, had been accused by Boxer of trying to hide her level of involvement on the Yucca Mountain Project when she worked at the Department of Energy early in her career. Svinicki defenders said she did no such thing.

Boxer also contended Svinicki had not shown a strong enough "commitment to safety" as the NRC has struggled to rework U.S. regulations in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 that caused disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada also opposes Svinicki. But he and other Senate leaders struck a deal that would reinstall the Republican nominee in tandem with Macfarlane, a Reid favorite.

At a hearing last week, senators expressed a desire to close out the current chapter at the NRC, which was marked by infighting between commissioners and Jaczko, who was accused of managing by temper and intimidation. He denied the accusations.

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