Yucca Mountain critic among nominees confirmed to nuclear panel

The south portal tunnel entrance of Yucca Mountain.
(Joe Cavaretta / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON-- Sidestepping a new debate over the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, the Senate confirmed two of President Obama’s nominees to the beleaguered Nuclear Regulatory Commission – including a critic of the proposed waste dump in Nevada who will become the panel’s new chair.

The Senate on Friday confirmed Allison Macfarlane, a geologist who has raised questions about the viability of the site 90 miles north of Las Vegas, despite earlier opposition to her nomination from some Republicans. And in a deal to clear the backlog of Obama nominees, the Senate also confirmed Kristine L. Svinicki, a GOP-supported member of the NRC, to another five-year term. Both were confirmed without dissent.

Macfarlane’s nomination by Obama gave nod to the continued power of the Yucca Mountain issue in the critical electoral swing state of Nevada. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) praised her confirmation.


Obama had halted work on the waste repository during his first years in office, fulfilling a campaign pledge to the state. But Republicans in Congress have tried to keep the project alive, pointing to the billions of dollars that have been spent over several decades studying the site as a place to store the spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s private nuclear power plants.

The swift action in the Senate comes at a time when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been riven by turmoil; its chairman, Gregory Jaczko, announced last month he would step down once his replacement was confirmed.

Jaczko, a former key aide to Reid, had been the five-member panel’s chief opponent of the Yucca Mountain project, and his management style came under scrutiny in a congressional investigation into claims that he had bullied staff members.

Svinicki, whose term expired Saturday, had been among his top critics. Svinicki is a nuclear engineer who had previously been an aide to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a strong supporter of Yucca Mountain. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader from Kentucky, welcomed her continued service.

Macfarlane will fill the remainder of Jaczko’s term, through June 2013. She is an associate professor of environmental science at George Mason University, and was picked for a federal commission appointed by Obama that studied alternatives for nuclear waste storage.