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By Rebecca Kern
Leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee stressed their commitment to vote soon on three Nuclear Regulatory Commission nominees, weeks before the commission is set to lose its quorum unless at least one nominee is confirmed.
Losing its quorum would “degrade the NRC’s collective ability to fulfill its mission” of regulating civilian use of radioactive materials, Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said at a June 13 hearing.
“The committee must act to restore the NRC to a full slate of commissioners expeditiously,” Barrasso said.
The committee is expected to act quickly on at least one nominee, with a planned June 15 vote on the re-nomination of Kristine Svinicki, currently the NRC’s chairman, for a third term at the commission. Sivinicki’s current term is set to expire on June 30, after which she would no longer be allowed to serve and the NRC wouldn’t have a quorum, so the committee is expediting her vote.
“Right now, the one I want to move quickly is Kristine Svinicki, and get her confirmed right away,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member of the committee, told reporters after the hearing.
He added, “I don’t think we’ll have difficulty with her” getting confirmed.
The office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it had no guidance on timing of when a floor vote for Svinicki would be held if the committee approves her as expected.
Carper said during the hearing that he is concerned with the lack of parity of Democratic and Republican commissioners being nominated. In addition to Svinicki, a Republican, the committee considered two other Republicans nominated by the Trump administration: Annie Caputo, a long-time energy policy adviser for the committee, and David Wright, a former chairman of the South Carolina Public Service Commission.
The NRC’s five commissioners serve staggered five-year terms, with three seats belonging to the political party in power in the White House. Currently there are three commissioners: Svinicki, whom President Donald Trump named as chairman in January, Stephen Burns (I), the previous chairman in the Obama administration, and Jeff Baran (D).
Baran’s term will expire on June 30, 2018. Carper said he wants Baran to be re-nominated by the White House so that the Senate can pair his nomination with Caputo and Wright’s nominations.
The committee members had few questions for the NRC nominees during the hearing. The hearing also included the nomination of Susan Parker Bodine to be assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, and senators used most of the time asking questions of her.
Barrasso asked the three NRC nominees what were the biggest challenges for the NRC.
Svinicki said, “Enhancing our agility is a significant challenge for the agency.” She added that she joined the NRC in 2008 when there was a “nuclear renaissance where many new reactors were envisioned being under construction.” But after the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in 2011 and recent low power prices, there has been a major decline in new nuclear reactor build in the U.S.
“It’s hard in a large organization when we don’t face those circumstances today. We must size ourselves and adjust our policies for the energy system that we have today. So as an agency we need to be able to resource and size ourself in an agile way,” she added.
Both Caputo and Wright said that, if confirmed, they too would work to streamline and reduce the size of the agency, which experienced staff increases in the past due to an expected number of new reactor applications.
While the contentious issue of the future of Yucca Mountain as the nation’s permanent repository for nuclear waste was not brought up during the hearing, Nevada Sens. Dean Heller (R) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D) submitted a letter for the record.
“We recognize that the nominees considered before the Committee today have a history and record of strongly supporting moving forward with the Yucca Mountain repository,” the senators wrote. “We remain hopeful that the nominees, if confirmed, approach this issue without any pre-existing bias and conflicts of interest.”
There is draft legislation in the House Energy and Commerce Committee to move forward with the licensing of Yucca Mountain, located approximately 90 miles from Las Vegas. Also, the Trump administration has requested $150 million in combination for the Energy Department and the NRC to complete and review the license.
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