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WILLIAM TUCKER: Chairman Macfarlane Goes to the Bullpen

By William Tucker

The news this week that Allison Macfarlane, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has hired Mary J. Woolen, former executive director of Keep Yellowstone Nuclear-Free as her director of external engagements is just another straw in the wind of what to expect from Washington in the next few years.  

Macfarlane was appointed on her credentials as an expert on nuclear waste.  Her signal contribution was her 2006 book, Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste, which argued that finding a permanent repository such as Yucca Mountain wasn’t necessary because spent fuel could safely be stored in dry casks for decades, perhaps even 100 years.  “We have plenty of time to deal with the problem,” was her mantra.  

All this held out some hope that Macfarlane’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission was not going to become another Anti-Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as it has so often in the past.  Her argument dovetailed nicely with both camps.  For the antis, it meant that Yucca Mountain was unnecessary and could rest comfortably in the grave dug for it by Macfarlane’s predecessor Gregory Jaczko, whose sole mission as chairman was to prevent the repository from being built in Harry Reid’s home state.  

But Macfarlane’s stance was also encouraging to the nuclear industry because it confirmed what they had long argued, that spent fuel is much more a technological challenge than a metaphysical roadblock that puts an end to all nuclear development.  So it seemed as if some kind of progress might be possible.

All this might have been a premature.  I had some indication of where Macfarlane was really coming from about three years ago under very unusual circumstances.  Al Gore was testifying before Congress about global warming and for the first time I was watching at home on C-Span.  At some point, a Senator asked him whether reprocessing wasn’t an option and he replied with grand irony, “Reprocessing only make the problem worse!”  

Environmentalists always love this argument.  It makes the opposition look so stupid.  Here they think they’re solving a problem and in fact they’re only making it worse!  What incompetence!

“Why did it make it worse?” the inquiring Senator asked.  And Gore proceeded to quote MIT professor Allison Macfarlane, who had told him in a personal conversation that when you reprocess, you end up with more waste than you started with.

I had heard this argument from the usual sources, but I was surprised to hear it from someone who was posing as a disinterested scholar.  At that point, it seemed as if Macfarlane was trying to bring some rationality to the subject.

So, sitting in Piermont, New York watching Gore testify on my computer screen, I called her up.  She also had an associate professorship down at George Mason at the time and I forget at which place I located her, but anyway, within a few minutes I had the reporter’s dream experience of talking with Macfarlane even as Al Gore was quoting her on C-Span.

How, I asked her, did reprocessing make the problem worse?


“It’s just a matter of chemistry,” she said.  “You have to add some chemical reagents to separate out the different elements.  So in the end you have more material.”


Yes, but this takes no account that you were separating 95 percent U-238, which is considered low-level waste, from the remaining 5 percent plutonium and actinides, which are the bad stuff you have to put in Yucca Mountain.  You’re reducing the problem by a factor of 20, aren’t you?  The French store all their high-level waste in one room.

Well, waste was still waste, she said, whether it was high-level or low-level, and so her statement stood.    

It quickly became obvious that, despite her aura of detached neutrality, Macfarlane was just another crusader feeding lines to the anti-nuclear activists so they could go around the country scaring people to death with them.  Of course whatever confidence Macfarlane may have had that spent could be stored safely for decades has quickly been shattered by the D.C. Court decision overturning the Waste Confidence Ruling.  And so we’re back to square one and all thoughts about 70-year hibernations in dry casks have been forgotten.  Once again, “nuclear waste” is the irremediable obstacle to the expansion of nuclear energy.

Now nobody really expects there will be any more new construction licenses issued until Vogtle and Summer projects are completed, which may be six to ten years from now.  But in the meantime the NRC can occupy itself over the question of whether we’re going to pull a Japan and close down Vermont Yankee and Indian Point, leaving Vermont and New York to compete over who can import the most electricity from the Hudson Bay.  

So that’s where we are with the NRC.  Meanwhile, there should be more than a few good patronage jobs to hand out to those loyal soldiers who have labored long and hard in the vineyards trying to close out the season on nuclear power.  


6 Responses to “WILLIAM TUCKER: Chairman Macfarlane Goes to the Bullpen”

  1. Brian Mays Says:

    Meanwhile, there should be more than a few good patronage jobs to hand out to those loyal soldiers who have labored long and hard in the vineyards trying to close out the season on nuclear power.

    Wow, that sounds familiar. It’s precisely the attitude that pervaded the US nuclear community during the Clinton administration.

    It’s amazing where just four years of having a Democrat in the White House will take you to.

    As for Chairman Macfarlane, let’s hope that she relies on the NRC Staff’s recommendations rather than her own “knowledge,” because she is obviously clueless, as she has demonstrated time and time again in interviews.

    Given that her husband is a regular contributor to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, I’m not very optimistic.

  2. Alex Thrower Says:

    Mr. Tucker, neither Dr. Macfarlane nor Mary Woolen are “antinuke” in the sense you suggest. I think you do both of them a disservice. Reasonable people can and do have differing opinions about nuclear waste management issues. That doesn’t mean they’re antinuclear ideologues.

  3. Brian Mays Says:

    Based on what I have heard Dr. Macfarlane say in interviews in the past, I’d say that she’s more clueless than an ideologue.

    It’s apparent, however, that she is somewhat of a darling for the hard-core anti-nuclear ideologues. Can you find a singe one who considers Macfarlane’s appointment to head the NRC to be a disaster.

  4. crf Says:

    But it is sort of like reading tea leaves at this point. Wait until she actually has to make an important decision, and watch which way she falls.

  5. Brian Mays Says:

    True, we’ll have to wait and see … with one exception.

    I don’t think that anyone has any doubts about how she is going to handle issues concerning Yucca Mountain. The Nevada repository is still the law of the land, in spite of the current administration’s refusal (in violation of the President’s Constitutional duties) to recognize and faithfully execute this law.

  6. simsjazz Says:

    I took a lot of heat claiming there never was a nuclear renaissance within the borders of the US. The COL for Vogtle and Summer projects only serve to extend employment and hope of future employment for a dismal US Nuclear Energy Policy. After over 25 years of chasing the nuclear energy balloon, its time to let it go….oh the industry will return, when the lights in American homes and factories go out but I will be pushing daisies. William, your article reaches right to the heart of the matter, when elite academia become leaders of regulatory bodies, the industry being regulated becomes an industry searching for a renaissance.