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Yucca critic named to head nuclear regulatory agency

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Dennis Cook / AP

Allison Macfarlane, shown in this 2006 file photo with Robert Loux, then executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, at a Yucca Mountain hearing, has been named to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Updated Thursday, May 24, 2012 | 2:46 p.m.

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

President Barack Obama nominated a successor to outgoing Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko on Thursday, selecting an alumna of the Blue Ribbon Commission that recently issued findings on how the country should dispose of its nuclear waste.

Allison Macfarlane is a professor at George Mason University in northern Virginia who has written extensively about Yucca Mountain, in addition to serving on the panel the president created to explore how the country should dispose of its nuclear waste. Earlier this year, the panel recommended the country should establish a national, permanent waste disposal site, but not foist it upon an unwilling locale.

A White House spokesman said Obama believes Macfarlane is the right person to lead the commission, calling her a highly regarded expert who has spent years analyzing nuclear issues.

Macfarlane "understands the role that nuclear power must play in our nation's energy future while ensuring that we are always taking steps to produce this important energy source safely and securely," White House spokesman Clark Stevens said.

Stevens called the NRC crucial to protecting public health and safety and said Obama hopes the Senate considers her nomination quickly.

Sen. Harry Reid spoke highly of Macfarlane on Thursday and said that he would like her nomination to move through the Senate confirmation process alongside Republican Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, who Reid said he continues to “have grave concerns about.”

Macfarlane has never served on the commission before. She would replace Jaczko, whose rocky tenure drew caustic accusations from his fellow commissioners that he manipulated NRC processes to achieve political ends, boxed out his colleagues, and spoke derisively toward women.

Svinicki, a former Department of Energy employee and aide to Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, is coming up on the end of her first five-year term of service on the commission.

Macfarlane is a geologist by training. Of particular note to Nevadans will be her background dealing with nuclear waste repository issues.

While she didn’t address the viability of Yucca Mountain in her term of service on the Blue Ribbon Commission, MacFarlane did make her doubts public in a 2006 book she wrote called “Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste” which detailed “unresolved technical issues” at the site.

Macfarlane did not immediately respond to interview requests. Reid spoke highly of her as a nominee.

“I am confident that like her predecessor, Dr. Allison Macfarlane will make preserving the safety and security of American citizens her top priority,” Reid said in a written statement. “The nuclear industry has a perfect opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to safety by supporting Dr. Macfarlane’s nomination.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, called Macfarlane "an active contributor to policy debates in the nuclear energy field for many years" and urged the Senate to confirm her nomination as soon as possible.

"It would not serve the public interest to have her nomination linger," the group said. "We urge the Senate to confirm both Commissioner Svinicki and Professor Macfarlane expeditiously."

If things move along the schedule Reid laid out Thursday, both Macfarlane and Svinicki’s nominations would be considered in the next month. Svinicki’s term ends on June 30.

Both must be approved by the Environment and Public Works committee before heading to a confirmation vote by the full Senate.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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