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Obama nominates successor to Nuclear Regulatory Commission's top post

By Todd Sperry, CNN
updated 10:41 PM EDT, Thu May 24, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Barack Obama intends to nominate Allison Macfarlane as NRC chief
  • Macfarlane is a professor at George Mason University
  • Gregory Jaczko announced his resignation as NRC chairman this week
  • Jaczko has been under fire since complaints about his management style surfaced

Washington (CNN) -- Three days after embattled Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko announced his resignation, the White House announced President Barack Obama intends to nominate Allison Macfarlane, a professor at George Mason University, to the agency's top post.

"The President has made clear that we need a strong NRC, and he believes Allison Macfarlane is the right person to lead the Commission," White House spokesman Clark Stevens said in a statement. "Dr. Macfarlane is a highly regarded expert who was a member of the President's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, and has spent years analyzing nuclear issues while at George Mason University, Harvard University as well as at MIT," Stevens said.

She received her doctorate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served fellowships at Stanford and Harvard universities during her academic career. Much of Macfarlane's university research has included nuclear energy, and specifically the back-end nuclear fuel cycle, or nuclear waste, according to her George Mason biography.

Macfarlane's expertise in nuclear waste disposal and her criticism of plans to dispose nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository in Nevada makes her nomination a more popular choice with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Yucca Mountain site has long been a political lightening rod for the Nevada senator.

In her book, "Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation's High-Level Nuclear Waste," Macfarlane claims, "although geologic repositories are the best solution to the nuclear waste problem, there are substantial uncertainties in projecting the performance of a geologic repository far into the future."

After the White House's announcement, Reid gave Macfarlane a ringing endorsement. "I am confident that like her predecessor, Dr. Allison Macfarlane will make preserving the safety and security of American citizens her top priority." Reid called Macfarlane "eminently qualified" to lead the NRC for the foreseeable future.

Thursday's announcement didn't sit well with House Republicans, who said the politics of Yucca Mountain weighed too heavily in the decision.

"Macfarlane's selection reveals that President Obama and Harry Reid have a Yucca Mountain litmus test for any prospective nuclear chief. As we continue overseeing the agency and its leadership, our litmus test will be their adherence to the law -- including the law on Yucca Mountain," Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a statement.

In his resignation announcement Monday, Jaczko said he intended to stay on until a successor is confirmed by the Senate, a message he echoed during a press conference on Wednesday in North Carolina.

The quick move to nominate Jaczko's successor could be a signal the White House hopes to move beyond the controversy that has surrounded his tenure as the agency's chairman.

Jaczko, a former top aide to Reid, has been under fire after complaints from Democrats and Republicans on the commission about his management style surfaced last year.

Last month, Jaczko denied allegations that he targeted women and created a hostile work environment. The accusations came amid a political fight between Congress and the White House over who should serve on the five-member commission that oversees the nation's nuclear industry regulation.

Jaczko served on the panel for almost eight years, including three as chairman. He was nominated for the NRC's top spot by President Obama in 2009.

In a statement to CNN, Jaczko said, "I have known Allison Macfarlane for a long time, and I think she is well-qualified to carry on my strong focus on the vital public health and safety mission of the NRC."

Macfarlane's nomination now heads to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the NRC, in June. If approved by the committee Macfarlane's nomination would then go before the full Senate for confirmation.

CNN's Paul Courson contributed to this report

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