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For new nuclear chief, concerns over plant safety

Geologist Allison M. Macfarlane, the new chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, questions the nuclear power industry’s evaluation of earthquake vulnerability.
Image: Allison Macfarlane, the new chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, outside the agency's office in Rockville, Md.
Allison M. Macfarlane, the new chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is the first geologist to serve on the panel.Brendan Hoffman / The New York Times via Redux Pictures
/ Source: The New York Times

The new chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has good news and bad news for the nuclear power industry.

The good news is that although an impasse over the storage of nuclear waste now threatens some of the industry’s routine activities, the chairwoman says she believes that a permanent repository can be set up eventually.

The bad news is that she considers the industry’s evaluation of earthquake vulnerability — an issue that was once believed to be settled when a nuclear power plant was licensed — to be inadequate.

Allison M. Macfarlane, the first geologist to serve on the commission, which regulates power plants and the civilian use of radioactive materials, arrives at a time when geology has moved to the center of the industry’s concerns. Since the triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant last year, which was caused by an earthquake that the Japanese industry had not believed was possible, a question has reverberated: Are the 104 reactors in the United States prepared for the worst challenge they could face?

Nuclear waste is also a crucial issue for the commission these days. In June, a federal appeals court ruled that the agency has acted too hastily in issuing licenses to power plants on the theory that waste could be safely stored at the plants until a final resting place is established.

The Obama administration canceled plans to store the waste at Yucca Mountain, a site in the Nevada desert, in 2010. With no repository now in sight, the commission has not shown that the reactors were prepared for this “interim” period, the court said.

So last week, the commission voted 5 to 0 to suspend licensing for plants until it can prove that the lack of a storage plan does not threaten public health and safety.

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In what will probably be a setback to the industry, Dr. Macfarlane says the commission has no deadline in mind for drafting a policy that will satisfy the court and allow it to resume licensing activity.

“This is a really fresh issue,” Dr. Macfarlane said in an interview. “We will evaluate what the court sent to us.”

She was far more optimistic, however, about the country’s ability to reach a consensus on a site for burying nuclear waste.

“It’s worth remembering that the United States is the only country in the world with an operating deep geologic repository for nuclear waste,” she said, referring to a site near Carlsbad, N.M., that began receiving plutonium-laced waste from the nation’s nuclear weapons program in 1999. The waste is buried 2,150 feet under the desert floor in the middle of a thick layer of salt.

“We should keep that in mind when thinking about whether the U.S. can accomplish that,” she said.

Dr. Macfarlane, who was sworn in last month, declined to comment on several safety questions before her agency, including how it would rule on handling nuclear waste until a repository is found.

But as a member of a blue-ribbon commission appointed to explore alternatives to Yucca Mountain, she argued for changes in the process used to choose a site. (Congress chose Yucca Mountain over the objections of Nevada, which later gained enough political and legal muscle to fight it off.)

While Dr. Macfarlane was upbeat about the long-term prospects for nuclear waste, she took a somewhat harsher tone on the industry’s evaluation of earthquake risk. The old approach, which involved building a plan to withstand the strongest earthquake a site has ever had, will not do, she said.

Sometimes engineers do not understand geology and approach it as a static body of knowledge, she said.

“As a geologist, I also know that geological knowledge is constantly changing,” she said. For example, she said, geologists did not think there could be a mega-earthquake off the east coast of Japan until the Indian Ocean earthquake off Indonesia in December 2004, which also produced a devastating tsunami.

That earthquake happened at a “subduction zone,” a spot where one tectonic plate slides under another. After that quake, she said, geologists realized that any such zone that was long enough could create a major earthquake.

“This is a dynamic set of knowledge, which requires regular feedback and interaction,” Dr. Macfarlane said.

The American industry recently began a re-evaluation of its earthquake vulnerability after the United States Geological Survey released a new estimate of the prospects for earthquakes in the eastern United States. And there may be more revisions in the future, she said.

Dr. Macfarlane succeeded Gregory B. Jaczko, a physicist who was deeply unpopular with the other commissioners and much of the staff.

Joining a commission long dominated by engineers, academics, lawyers and the occasional admiral, Dr. Macfarlane acknowledged that she was “from the outside.” But she said the staff and the other commissioners had been welcoming.

On another front, Dr. Macfarlane said she had instructed her staff to “use more transparent language.”

“People who live near a nuclear facility should be able to read the documents that the N.R.C. produces,” she said. “That will certainly give them more confidence of our ability to regulate safety.”

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.