Macfarlane’s tenure at the commission has been defined by the 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant. “We had never thought that more than one reactor could melt down at a site at the same time,” Macfarlane says. The NRC is determining whether nuclear-power plants in the U.S. could withstand such a calamity, a project that she says “will occupy us through 2016.”
Macfarlane, 49, was appointed to the position when her predecessor, Gregory Jaczko, resigned last year after accusations that he had bullied his staff and engaged in a “raging verbal assault,” according to NRC Commissioner William Magwood. Macfarlane’s one-year term expired June 30, but the Senate confirmed her to a five-year position in late June. Macfarlane coedited a 2006 book raising concerns about the high-level nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, and she has an ally in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who wants to terminate the project.
Macfarlane, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the “tectonic evolution” of the Himalayas, is a geologist by training, which “informs the way that I look at many issues,” she says. In her view, the tsunami and earthquake that brought about the Fukushima disaster were not “black swans”—or anomalous events—but squarely “within the realm of possibilities.”
Apart from Fukushima, another issue facing the NRC is a court-mandated review of the agency’s “Waste Confidence Decision and Rule,” which allows spent fuel to be stored on the premises of a nuclear-power plant for a period of time after its license has expired. In June 2012, an Appeals Court vacated this policy for a variety of reasons, prompting the NRC to suspend all licensing activities based on the “Decision and Rule.”
Macfarlane, a Connecticut native, received a B.S. in geology from the University of Rochester and a Ph.D. in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From 2010 to 2012, she served on the Obama administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Before being sworn in as NRC chairwoman, Macfarlane was an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.