Dr. MacFarlane

Earlier this week, embattled NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko announced he would be stepping down from his position contingent upon the confirmation of his replacement. Wasting no time, the Obama administration announced their nominee today, a mere three days after Jaczko's announcement. Their candidate? Dr. Allison MacFarlane, an associate professor of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University.

MacFarlane is not without technical credentials - she holds a Ph.D. in geology from MIT and has written extensively on nuclear waste management issues - in particular, serving on the recent Blue Ribbon Commission. And, unlike the departing Chairman, MacFarlane at least has an academic career to point to, rather than solely being employed as a political aide for entire career. Ideologically however, she is relatively aligned with the departing Chariman however - thus, while not quite Gregory Jaczko II: Electric Boogaloo, she is likely close enough for government work.

A mixed bag

Suffice it to say, MacFarlane's ideological interests represent a mixed bag, to say the least. In many of her writings concerning the siting process for a nuclear waste repository, MacFarlane has repeatedly pointed to the need for a consent-based process (like that used for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [WIPP] in New Mexico) for locating a disposal facility, something which has been repeatedly stressed by other nuclear professionals (including myself). Thus, her influence over the Blue Ribbon Commission's final report is quite obvious.

On the other hand, MacFarlane has been extremely critical of spent fuel reprocessing along with being a tenacious opponent of Yucca Mountain itself; she, along with Frank Von Hippel of Princeton have repeatedly advocated plutonium immobilization of surplus stocks of reactor-grade plutonium from civil reprocessing programs, as well as for weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads. Needless to say, this is an incredibly wasteful and inefficient waste management solution. (It is thus perhaps unsurprising then, given her influence, that the BRC final report also declined to endorse reprocessing as a policy solution for spent nuclear fuel.)

MacFarlane couches her objections chiefly in terms of nonproliferation concerns (something which I have an academic specialty in); what is not clearly demonstrated in any of her analysis is how reactor-grade plutonium (itself not suitable for direct use in weapons, due to heat-producing impurities such as Pu-240 and Pu-242 which make for sub-optimal weapons materials - more on this in a moment) represents a viable proliferation concern, particularly in nuclear weapons states such as the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and the United States.

The exception here to this trend is of course Japan, which currently reprocesses fuel and ultimately aspires to achieve a fully "closed" fuel cycle for reasons of resource independence. However, even absent a reprocessing program, their world-class leadership in nuclear technology means that they are hardly constrained on a technical basis from developing a weapons program. (Japan is quintessentially a "screwdriver's turn" from nuclear weapons capability). Yet given their deep cultural aversion to nuclear weapons, Japan is in fact a leading figure in the international nonproliferation community.

All of this said, MacFarlane herself has gone on the record of indicating the she personally does not oppose nuclear energy itself, arguing that in the face of climate change, we "absolutely need nuclear power." Again, very much a mixed bag, so to speak.

The two faces of the nonproliferation community

Much of MacFarlane's background has been associated with what I term the "political" wing of the nonproliferation community - the other being the "technical" side (where my background is from). Her affiliations include the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard (not exactly a hotbed of pro-nuclear activity or solid technical analysis at that), home of well-known academic nuclear critic Matthew Bunn, as well as being a regular co-author with Frank Von Hippel (someone also not known for his warm feelings for nuclear energy - although a perfectly pleasant person in real life.)

Nonproliferation tends to get a poor reputation among nuclear professionals and advocates, precisely due to the "political" wing, who tend to focus on opposing any nuclear technology seen as "proliferant," which in turn lends itself to the anti-nuclear strategy of "bottle-necking" - in other words, "constipate" the nuclear fuel cycle and then complain loudly of the "lack of solutions" for nuclear waste (despite the plethora of available technical options).

Conversely, the "technical" nonproliferation community tends to focus on aspects such as how to improve aspects of verification and measurement within fuel cycle facilities - in other words, ensuring that declarations of sensitive facilities are complete and accurate and that material is fully accounted for. An example of this includes projects like those I am currently working on, which seek to use radiation detectors to better characterize the isotopic contents of spent nuclear fuel in order to provide for a superior accounting of materials such as plutonium. The difference in focus thus could not be more stark - one side complaining of the potential problems and the other seeking solutions to improve facilities such to eliminate said problems.

Ultimately, these kinds of debates come back to the question I frequently ask: "So what's your alternative?" To her credit, MacFarlane at least does offer an alternative solution - one I find to be highly flawed, but it is nonetheless out there. And again, likewise to her credit, MacFarlane does not declare herself to be outright opposed to nuclear energy. Thus, the problem is simply a matter of coming to an agreement on a better solution for nuclear waste management.

A small background on "weapons-usable"

So-called "weapons-grade" plutonium contains more than 90% Pu-239 - the isotope most suitable for weapons use (given its low spontaneous fission rate and low heat generation rate). Even-numbered plutonium isotopes - Pu-238, Pu-240, and Pu-242 - tend to have a high heat generation rate (Pu-238 has such a high heat generation rate from alpha decay that it is frequently used as a power source for space missions such as the Cassini-Hugyens probe which took spectacular images of Saturn and the New Horizons probe currently en route to Pluto). Pu-240 and Pu-242 also have a high level of spontaneous fission, which means in addition to producing large amounts of heat they produce high levels of neutrons - in a weapon, this leads to unpredictable yield, or "fizzle." Thus, generally speaking, "reactor grade" plutonium, while usable in the strictest sense (i.e., one can construct a fission chain reaction using the materials), they are far from optimal for a national weapons effort - any nation with the capability of reprocessing would easily choose a more dedicated route (i.e., with separate plutonium-production reactors to produce high-purity Pu-239 and separate reprocessing facilities) before resorting to diverting civilian stocks.

Political calculations - the "twofer"

So why did Obama tap MacFarlane? Two reasons are likely in play. The first of course is that given her prior criticisms of Yucca Mountain, her nomination has been bolstered by the support of Senate Majority Leader and infamous Yucca Mountain opponent Senator Harry Reid (D-NV). Second, her nomination comes on the heels of President Obama's renomination of current Commissioner Kristine Svinicki. Thus it is likely the Obama Administration is seeking a "twofer," seeking to align the confirmation of Svinicki with that of MacFarlane as a "package deal." Senate Republicans are unlikely to object to Svinicki, who has enjoyed the support of the nuclear community given her extensive expertise in nuclear issues. (And indeed, even NEI has been pushing this strategy of jointly confirming the two nominees.)

The nomination of MacFarlane as chair may also be a concession to Reid and other anti-nuclear Senate Democrats in another sense - Senator Reid has complained (without substantial basis) of Svinicki's record on the NRC - a rather questionable position, given Svinicki has generally voted with her three other commissioners on many important issues (in other words, it would seem that Reid's criticism, and in particular singling out Svinicki, is mostly upon the grounds of several prominent 4-1 votes in which Chairman Jaczko stood alone).

However, his grumbling appears to be muted in a press release similar to that of NEI, stating:

I continue to have grave concerns about Kristine Svinicki’s record on the Commission. But I believe the best interests of the public would be served by moving the nominations of Dr. Macfarlane and Ms. Svinicki together before Ms. Svinicki’s term expires at the end of June, to ensure that we have a fully functioning NRC. Republicans claim to share that goal, and I hope they will work with us to make it a reality.

The smart money will thus likely be on a joint appointment deal hammered out sometime this summer.

And as for Yucca Mountain? I still wouldn't bet on it.