President Obama Tuesday appointed two new Commissioners to the NRC. They will replace departed Commissioner George Apostalakis and outgoing and increasingly controversial Commissioner William Magwood.
Already the Nuclear Energy Institute and some GOP congressmembers are raising concerns about both of them, although there have not yet been any outright calls for their confirmation defeat in the Senate. Both need to be confirmed by the Senate Environment Committee, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Unless some new information turns up about one or both of them, confirmation by the Committee seems likely. However, the nominations could run into trouble on the Senate floor if Republicans decide to mount a filibuster against them–as they have done against many Obama nominees to various positions.
Stephen Burns is pretty much a career-lifer at NRC, having worked there more than 30 years, most recently as the agency’s general counsel, before a brief detour as legal counsel to the Paris-based nuclear promotional organization Nuclear Energy Agency.
Jeffrey Baran is former House Energy Committee Chair Henry Waxman’s top energy aide. Waxman is retiring at the end of this congressional session.
Despite his career working primarily at the NRC, Burns has run into the most skepticism from Republicans, mostly due to his apparent backing of former NRC Chair Greg Jaczko’s decision to declare emergency powers in the immediate wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Burn’s nomination, however, has run into questions from the opposite perspective as well, with some environmentalists noting the apparent revolving door between the NRC and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency. Magwood is leaving the NRC to head NEA, a position he starts on September 1, while Burns would be moving back to NRC from NEA.
Magwood, who has been pushing against mounting calls for his immediate resignation, said he plans to stay at the NRC until his last possible day, Sunday, August 31. Does that mean he’ll fly to Paris on Sunday evening and start his new job the next morning? Apparently, what it really means is that he intends to collect an NRC paycheck as long as possible….
According to an article in the Energy Guardian, (14-day free subscription available), Senators Boxer and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who also is on the Environment Committee, gave initial support to the nominees.
“From what I know they appear very well qualified,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., of Baran and Burns….
Boxer has been critical of the NRC for what she has said is a overly-deliberate approach to safety, particularly after the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant meltdown in 2011. Among the targets of her criticism were Magwood and Apostolakis.
“What we need are real, fierce advocates for the public and public safety,” she said. “We just want to make sure nuclear power is safe. I think that the nominees bring that kind of ethic to the job, and the departing ones, I never had confidence that that was their major concern.”
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a committee member who has been critical of nuclear power and the NRC, also called them “very qualified” nominees.
“I believe that these two nominees will focus on nuclear safety, and that’s the key role that the agency has to discharge,” he added. “That’s the job of the NRC and hopefully these two nominees will fulfill that mission. From their past records I’m confident that they will.”
But Marv Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents nuclear generators, said the industry had questions about both.
He said the industry knows little about Baran and that his nomination “merits close scrutiny” because he lacks nuclear power background.
Fertel acknowledged that Burns had a successful 33-year career at NRC but said the group has concerns about his role as general counsel during the controversial assumption of emergency powers by former Chairman Gregory Jaczko during the Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdown in Japan.
“The industry also believes emergency authority should be used only by the NRC chairman in rare circumstances in which other commissioners are unavailable to participate in agency decision-making,” Fertel said in a statement.
He also raised questions about the role of Burns in Jaczko’s termination of the Yucca Mountain repository license application technical review after Obama canceled the project. A federal court reversed the NRC’s termination and ordered it to re-start the review.
Fertel said the industry wants to see a collegial atmosphere at the NRC, which was strained by conflicts between Jaczko and his fellow commissioners, including Magwood, and by debates over the implementation of post-Fukushima safety improvements at U.S. reactors.
Apparently, Fertel only wants a “collegial atmosphere” when NRC Commissioners are working to undermine safety improvements at reactors, not when they’re trying to improve them.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), another member of the Environment Committee, said yesterday, “If he’s [Burns] the individual that gave any cover to Jaczko’s assertion that he could unilaterally rule the commission because an emergency had occurred, then I think that would be very problematic,” Sessions told CQ Roll Call. “I intend to look at it very hard. I hope we’re now not seeing a Jaczko Junior. . .being appointed.”
Clean energy groups have so far not made any public statements about either nominee, although some individuals who have worked with Baran in the past indicated their support for his nomination.
July 24, 2014
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