Obama taps George Mason professor to head nuclear agency

President Obama nominated George Mason University Professor Allison Macfarlane Thursday to serve as chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Macfarlane has been a professor of environmental science at the university since 2006 and served on a federal panel tasked with determining a long-term solution for the country’s nuclear waste.

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She has been critical of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, a long-delayed project that the Obama administration abandoned in 2009. Macfarlane wrote a 2006 book titled, Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation's High-Level Nuclear Waste. The book, according to the GMU website, "explores the unresolved technical issues" with Yucca Mountain.

Current NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who has come under fire from his colleagues and Republicans for his leadership style, announced earlier this week that he intends to step down once the Senate confirms his replacement.

Obama nominated Macfarlane as one of five NRC commissioners and said he intended to appoint her as chairwoman of the panel once she is confirmed by the Senate.

The nomination sets up what could be a politically thorny confirmation process. Republicans are certain to take aim at Macfarlane over her stance on Yucca Mountain, a project that they say Obama abandoned for political reasons.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) applauded the nomination Thursday.

"I am confident that like her predecessor, Dr. Allison Macfarlane will make preserving the safety and security of American citizens her top priority as Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," he said in a statement. "Dr. Macfarlane’s education and experience, in particular her service on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, make her eminently qualified to lead the NRC for the foreseeable future."

Reid said he hopes to move Macfarlane's nomination in tandem with the nomination of Republican Commissioner Kristine Svinicki to a second term on the panel. By tying them together, Republicans are less likely to block Macfarlane's nomination; they want Svinicki's nomination to move forward before her term expires June 30.

"I continue to have grave concerns about Kristine Svinicki’s record on the Commission," said Reid, who has been a vocal critic of Svinicki.

"But I believe the best interests of the public would be served by moving the nominations of Dr. Macfarlane and Ms. Svinicki together before Ms. Svinicki’s term expires at the end of June, to ensure that we have a fully functioning NRC. Republicans claim to share that goal, and I hope they will work with us to make it a reality."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a critic of nuclear power, said in a statement he believes Macfarlane "can be a strong chair for the NRC," while Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Macfarlane's "background and experience demonstrate that she has the strong commitment to safety that is so needed in this post-Fukushima era."

Boxer said she will hold a hearing on Macfarlane and Svinicki's nominations in June.
 
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she is happy that Obama nominated somebody so quickly, and vowed to examine Macfarlane's record.

"What I am pleased with is that a nomination came forward as early as it did. I think that is important for the process and I am looking forward to learning a little bit more about Ms. Macfarlane," she told reporters in the Capitol.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nuclear energy watchdog group, praised Macfarlane.

"It’s very exciting, we wholeheartedly support the nomination. We think she’s going to be a very strong chair," Robert Cowin, Washington representative for clean energy at UCS, told The Hill.

"In the absence of Jaczko, we really needed a safety advocate there. She’s clearly going to be that."

Here is Macfarlane's full biography, provided by the White House:

Allison M. Macfarlane is an associate professor of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University (GMU), a position she has held since 2006. Dr. Macfarlane served as a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future from March 2010 to January 2012. Dr. Macfarlane worked as a research associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 2004 to 2006 and 2000 to 2003, and as an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology from 2003 to 2004. She was also a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs from 1998 to 2000, and a fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation from 1997 to 1998. Dr. Macfarlane began her teaching career in the Department of Geography and Earth Systems Science at GMU. She received a B.Sc. from the University of Rochester and a Ph.D. in Geology from MIT.

—Ben Geman contributed to this story.

This story was updated at 3:47 p.m.

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