Snap Fact #203 - President Obama Stands Up For The Environment At Yucca Mountain!

Post date: May 27, 2012 2:1:11 PM

Snap Fact #203

President Obama Stands Up For The Environment At Yucca Mountain! 

In 2005, George Bush appointed Gregory Jaczko to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In 2009 Mr. Jaczko was elevated to the Chairmanship of the Commission by President Obama. The new chairman has his roots deeply embedded in environmental concerns. The Commission’s mission is to protect the public safety. They are responsible for the oversight of 104 nuclear reactors throught the country. One of the biggest issues during his 3 year tenure as chairman has been Yucca Mountain.

Yucca Mountain has been identified as a potential storage facility for nuclear waste. The question of its use is complex of strands of controversial economic, environmental, and political issues. There are 4 commissioners, 2 Republicans and 2 Democrats, plus the chairman who are responsible for this complicated subject. 

Jaczko is an experienced scientist whose credentials made him eminently qualified for the job. He not only had superior knowledge about the subject, he had concluded that opening the facility would present serious risks to the environment. 

Unfortunately, the chairman’s people skills came up short and he has tendered his resignation effective either at the end of his term in June 2013, or as soon as a replacement can be installed. It seems as though he was frustrated fighting for what he believed in, not authorizing the Yucca waste site. His frustration took the form of inappropriate outbursts aimed at staff and fellow commissioners as well. The situation got so bad that all four of the commissioners appealed for his ouster. On May 21st he announced he would step down. 

This leaves the President with a tricky political situation. Appointing a conservative (in this case that is an ironic appellation) to step in would swing the Commission’s vote to approval of the site. On the other hand, appointing another conservationist would trigger a fight in Congress. 

Would the President cave or stand by his principles? Perhaps you have noticed that he is more and more standing up and fighting back. The President sprang into action and by May 24th he announced the nomination of 48 year old Dr. Allison M. Macfarlane, a professor of environmental science at George Mason University, to serve as chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Dr. Macfarlane has been an outspoken critic of the potential Yucca waste disposal location. Like the current chairman she fears the area is vulnerable to seismic and volcanic activity which would have devastating consequences. She also has stated that waste stored in Yucca Mountain would be exposed to oxygen and water which would pose a danger to the surrounding area.

If you are one small step ahead of me here, you will already understand that the lines of this debate are already etched deeply by partisan politics. The never-ending argument between the Democrats environmental concerns clashes violently with the Republicans financial arguments. As always it boils down to long term verses short term thinking. 

Therefore, the President’s nomination to replace one opponent of the Yucca facility with another is both courageous and politically tricky. The nominee is highly qualified and the need to have a fully operating Commission bodes in favor of the appointment being ratified after a tough vetting process. The question is will the Republicans be so unwise and hold up the appointment for political reasons?

“Dr. Macfarlane is a highly regarded expert who was a member of the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future and has spent years analyzing nuclear issues while at George Mason University, Harvard University as well as at M.I.T.,” said Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman. 

“A strong and effective N.R.C. is crucial to protecting public health and safety, promoting defense and security and protecting the environment,” 

The President has another political ace in the hole. The Senate is currently considering Mr. Obama’s appointment of Kristine L. Svinicki, a current member of the commission originally nominated by President George W. Bush, to a second five-year term. The Senate is likely to consider the two appointments in tandem, possibly easing the political path for each. 

Can compromise be achieved for the sake of the country or will this turn into another game of political hostage taking. We will soon see.