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New Nuclear Waste Sites at Issue for NRC Pick

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
In 2010, Sen. Patty Murray tried to pass a proposal that would have provided $200 million to continue the licensing for the Yucca Mountain project, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid opposes because it is in his home state.

The Senate could take up the nomination of Allison Macfarlane to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as soon as this month, but concerns over whether her opposition to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository would put other sites back in play could complicate her nomination.

Senators are sizing up Macfarlane, a geologist at George Mason University, who has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the force behind the decades-long effort to kill the Yucca project in Nevada. The White House has also backed Reid in his efforts.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is expected to hold a hearing on Macfarlane and GOP NRC nominee Kristine Svinicki  on June 13.

In a 2009 interview in Technology Review magazine, which is published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Macfarlane supported nuclear power and said an alternative to Yucca is needed. She pronounced Yucca geologically unsound.

“There are lots [of potential sites], all over the country,” she said. But she declined to name any particular candidates.

“I haven’t studied anything in detail, and I don’t want to get anybody upset,” Macfarlane said. “But we have a huge country, and there are many locations. One thought, though, is that sites could be in locations where people already have a comfort level with nuclear power, which is how the Swedes and Finns have been successful.”

Macfarlane could not be reached for comment. But she was chosen in part because her views do not depart dramatically from outgoing NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko. Still, the process of installing a new chairman is sure to reopen old debates over how to store the spent nuclear waste that has been piling up at reactors around the country.

Before Yucca was designated as the nation’s repository in 1987, it was on a short list with two other sites: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington state and Deaf Smith County, Texas.

“I can see no scenario where that waste will come to Washington state,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said when asked whether Macfarlane’s nomination was a concern.

A Murray aide said she wants to wait for the hearing before making any judgment.

“We’re not having it,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said.

The 586-square-mile Hanford site is home to nine decommissioned nuclear reactors and their associated processing facilities that were built beginning in 1943.

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