Macfarlane, Yucca Mountain, and the Issue of Impartiality

Fort Saint Vrain Generating Station, as it was opened in 1979 as a nuclear power facility. Drawing by the author in pencil and Copic markers. 

As many of you are probably aware, Dr. Allison Macfarlane, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman, provided a  prepared testimony yesterday to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on the Environment and Economy, regarding the Yucca Mountain project and further study thereof. In speaking of this study recently, Dr. Macfarlane made clear that she herself should remain directly involved in the Yucca Mountain study despite calls from Nye County, Nevada officials who have requested that she recuse herself from the debate given that she has in previous work prior to being appointed chairwoman of the NRC been a rather vocal critic of Yucca Mountain. You can read up on these recent developments here:

Since her appointment, I have had mixed feelings about Dr. Macfarlane. On the one hand, I'm a strong advocate of seeing women in high government and military positions—retired Air Force Lieutenant General Leslie Kenne is a personal hero of mine, in example—so I am glad to see a woman leading the NRC. We need more young women to go into the sciences and engineering, and what better to encourage them than to see women not only with good careers in these fields, but at the very highest levels of authority in them? On the other hand, per her individual background, I'm less impressed with Dr. Macfarlane. Yes, she's very well-educated and probably a great scientist and professor in her field of geology, but she came to President Obama's attention to replace former NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko for two main reasons: Dr. Jaczko had been blamed for supposed outbursts and tirades at female staff—apparently calling them names and yelling at them, as amazing as such actions are coming from someone in his office—and thus the president sought a new leader who would, one would hope, restore the idea of decorum and gender-fairness to One White Flint North. Secondly, Dr. Macfarlane had served on a Blue Ribbon Commission regarding the technical future and viable options for Yucca Mountain, so she was known to Washington from that and other work concerned with the long-term storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain and other sites. 

In short, this is what we have with Dr. Macfarlane:

—She holds a PhD in geology from MIT and was an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University prior to her NRC appointment. 

—Her primary area of interest per nuclear issues has always been in the geological aspects of long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste.

—She has been a very vocal critic of Yucca Mountain. 

—Her husband, Dr. Hugh Gusterson, is an anthropologist who has made the sociocultural aspects of scientists working on nuclear projects—mainly the Manhattan Project—one of his main areas of study. 

—Serving on the Yucca Mountain Blue Ribbon Commission appears to have been her main governmental service prior to her role at the NRC. 

Again, Dr. Macfarlane is probably a very astute scientist, a great professor, and a nice person, but is she right for the highest office at the NRC? Moreover, should she recuse herself from a topic that she not only has been outspoken on in the past, but indeed the one single nuclear topic that lead her to the office she now holds? 

Dr. Jaczko was not a nuclear engineer, either—he was a physicist with pretty robust public policy/government experience prior to his chairmanship at the NRC. I can see in light of the claims of unfair treatment of female staffers by Jaczko that a female leader was a wise choice in the wake of that drama. However, were there not any female nuclear engineers in academia, the senior executive service, industry, or elsewhere who could have been tapped? For that matter, if not a nuclear engineer, why not a leading engineering with good policy experience—someone like the Air Force's Janet Fender who has proven herself as a very able leader who knows Washington inside and out? Appointing someone who had mainly experience with one narrow field of what the NRC encompasses to oversee all of the NRC to me seems myopic. Most of what the NRC is concerned with is power engineering. That's the day-to-day focus. It seems imperative to have a person with a good engineering background and a strong understanding of the nuclear power community as the captain of this ship. If you read Macfarlane's husband's work, moreover, you gain from his writing that he has a fascination and respect for scientists working on nuclear projects, but also his work portends the type of mythos you find rife around the topic of nuclear weapons and early nuclear science. Don't get me wrong: Dr. Gusterson's work is great and very useful to those like myself interested in America's nuclear legacy, but you have to wonder . . . a couple where one of them is so opposed to Yucca Mountain that she edited a book (yes, a whole book) on the topic and the other one works on issues of the sociology of America's bomb-makers. Two people married who both have made careers around nuclear issues, but fairly specific ones and not the ones most central to the day-in, day-out, world of nuclear power. How much that influences Dr. Macfarlane I cannot say and dare not guess, but it's certainly interesting.

Dr. Macfarlane's book, by the way, is despite containing very good research, pretty strongly against Yucca Mountain. I've read it and it's in my view worth reading, but again: it's got an agenda to an extent, too. You can get it from Amazon here if you wish:

My personal feeling, if you've not yet guessed, is that yes, Dr. Macfarlane should recuse herself. If there is a formal role for her in the current work on Yucca Mountain where she is able to recuse herself and continue her other, unrelated, NRC duties, she ought to recuse herself. She is in what we can argue is the highest position of power in the entire nuclear community in the US now, and she got there mainly for her expertise on the Yucca Mountain project. However, she came to some pretty exacting conclusions on what she thinks about Yucca Mountain on the way. Whatever cold, hard, science she's contributed to this discourse must be in her book, numerous academic and technical papers, and other publications already. Her work there should be consulted, but she needs to recuse herself at this point. Yucca Mountain needs the least amount of politics on its chess board right now and the most actual science as is possible. If this was a small university-based scientific study—say, one to prove the utility of a new drug or a new jet engine design—any researcher with a clear conflict of interest would declare that and step away from it if that interest was too crucial, too central. In many cases, conflicts of interest are not such a big deal, but when it's the very topic much of your career to date has been predicated on, I think it's time to step aside from that topic as it enters further investigation.

Do I favor or disfavor Yucca Mountain myself? Neither, really. But I feel that we've spent a fortune on it already and we need to discern if it is a viable option for the purpose it was provided for in the first place. We owe the project and ourselves as taxpayers that much. Alas, what I think isn't that important whether I have strong opinions or not . . . but someone who has both serious political clout and strong views, well, what the person thinks matters a great deal. 

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Nuclear Street.

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