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New NRC chair vouches for agency's independence, states goals

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Tue August 14, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Allison Macfarlane says she's impressed with the NRC staff
  • They are willing "to stand up to industry when they believe a situation is not safe," she says
  • Macfarlane is the first geologist to head the agency

Washington (CNN) -- Is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission too cozy with the industry it regulates?

After five weeks on the job, the new chairwoman of the agency doesn't think so.

Allison Macfarlane said Tuesday she has confidence in the agency and its independence from the nation's 104 commercial nuclear power plants.

"I have some strong initial impressions of the agency, and one is that I've been very impressed with the staff and their dedication to safety, and their willingness to stand up to industry when they believe a situation is not safe," Macfarlane said in a wide-ranging discussion with reporters.

"So I'm actually quite assured that the agency is completing its mission of protecting public health and safety," she said. "They take safety issues very seriously. They take their role as regulators very seriously and the public should be assure that they have the public's best interests in mind."

Macfarlane said she hopes to build public confidence in the agency by improving communication, increasing transparency and making NRC documents understandable. "Some of them are rather opaque," she allowed.

Macfarlane, the first geologist to head the agency, repeatedly stressed the importance of geology in the placement of nuclear power plants, and said one of her top goals is to look "at the intersection of geology and nuclear technology."

"Geology clearly matters. If that wasn't one of the main lessons of Fukushima, I don't know what was," Macfarlane said of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan. "There was a massive earthquake -- an earthquake that was not predicted."

After that disaster, the NRC conducted a quick review of U.S. nuclear power plant operations, and has ordered nuclear plants to study the seismic and flood vulnerabilities of the plants.

Both the Japan earthquake and the August 2011 quake beneath Mineral, Virginia, near the North Anna nuclear power plant, exceeded predictions, demonstrating the need for accurate predictions and standards that exceed those predictions, Macfarlane said.

Macfarlane said she was fishing with her son at a suburban Washington lake during the Virginia quake and did not feel its affects.

"We didn't know anything happened. The lake didn't move -- nothing," she said. "And it re-enforced the lesson to me that geology matters. ... It matters what's beneath you. It matters what's in the path to you. And that really matters for nuclear facilities. And we have to make sure that we get this right. We have to make sure that we really understand all the issues."

Pressed on whether geologic surveys could lead to the closing of some older nuclear power plants, Macfarlane said she believes plants could be upgraded if necessary. "The important thing is you need to understand what those risks are."

Macfarlane also stressed the need for the Congress and the administration to find a geologic site for the long-term storage of nuclear waste. The Obama administration scrapped a plan to store waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and a blue ribbon commission, on which Macfarlane served, said the government must look for a community willing to accept the waste.

Finding a site for nuclear waste is possible, she said.

"I just want to provide people assurance that this can happen in the United States, because it has," she said, noting the Department of Energy's waste site east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, used to store waste from the production of nuclear weapons.

In the meantime, Macfarlane said, dry casks have proved effective for the temporary safe storage of nuclear waste.

"They seem to be operating very well," she said, noting that they are passively cooled, avoiding the need for water that has proved problematic with the damaged storage pools at Fukushima.

The NRC is looking at the issue of expediting the movement from storage waste pools to dry cask storage, she said.

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