Allison Macfarlane, the college professor tapped to lead the federal agency that oversees the nation’s nuclear power industry, is seen by most observers and colleagues as an intelligent and amiable choice, but many are unsure if she is ready to take the helm of a ship that has been listing for months.
In the past, nominees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have been evaluated largely on their expertise in nuclear energy. But the leadership controversy that led current Chairman Gregory Jaczko to announce his resignation has put more emphasis on the need for a manager who can build consensus.
Macfarlane, who earned a doctorate in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992, is currently an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. She previously held fellowships in science and international affairs at Radcliffe College, Harvard University, and Stanford University, and she was an associate professor at Georgia Tech University.
She was also a member of a blue-ribbon panel on nuclear waste that issued a report this year after nearly two years of study.
Although Macfarlane has criticized plans for the now-defunct nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada and raised questions about the viability of nuclear expansion, she has openly stated that she sees nuclear power as essential in combating climate change.
Despite Macfarlane’s vast array of academic experience, the transition from educator to regulator could prove difficult, observers say.
“Having chaired a couple of regulatory agencies myself … I can say that there are challenges that are just different than one routinely faces in creating effective presentations for a class,” explained Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner and current adjunct professor at Vermont Law School. “She’s never run an entity the size of the NRC.”
The post of NRC chair, with an annual salary of nearly $180,000, directly oversees 12 to 15 staff members and manages the congressional-affairs and public-affairs offices, which together include nearly 50 people. Overall, NRC has more than 450 employees and a budget of just over $1 billion in 2012.
Still, the job is less about personnel management than leadership and consensus building, explained Paul Dickman, who was chief of staff to Dale Klein, Jaczko’s predecessor as NRC chairman. “Your job is to basically try to build the policy basis for the commission to act,” he added.
“I don’t know her well enough to know whether she can serve in that manner,” Dickman said of Macfarlane. “To be chairman, you also have to be an administrator. That was one of Greg’s great failings. It was just that he didn’t know how to manage, and he alienated his colleagues.”
Other industry watchers and colleagues of Macfarlane’s were also unsure whether she is ready to lead: “I don’t know,” several responded when asked by National Journal Daily about her readiness to head NRC.
Her only management experience has been in roles at George Mason and at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
At the university, she has chaired a number of personnel committees, she supervises master’s and doctoral candidates and serves on the executive committee that directs graduate programs in her department, said a colleague at George Mason, geography professor Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach. “All of these activities demonstrate leadership, negotiation, and consensus building,” she said.
Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has also seen Macfarlane take on a management role as chairwoman of the Science and Security Board at the online magazine. “She doesn’t get so ego-involved in the discussion or the outcome that it clouds her own judgment,” Benedict said.
Macfarlane gets high marks from peers on collegiality and composure—two traits fellow commissioners found lacking in Jaczko.
Phillip Sharp, who served on the nuclear-waste panel with Macfarlane, said “she seemed to work well with various points of view on the commission. There was no evidence that she was a loner.”
Sharp is confident Macfarlane would do fine at the NRC if confirmed by the Senate. A hearing on her nomination is expected soon.