The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's new chair, Allison Macfarlane, says one of her priorities is to develop a response to a recent federal court decision that vacated nuclear-waste regulations the NRC had issued in 2010.


The June 8 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit led the commission to put on hold final approval of construction and operating licenses (COLs) for all new reactors as well as license renewals. NRC staffers have developed a preliminary response to the court decision, and NRC commissioners will review it in coming weeks.

In her first press conference, held on Aug. 14, Macfarlane said, "I'm not able to say a lot about this because it is an active adjudicatory matter, but let me just say that we know this is a pressing issue." She added, "It is a priority for us. … We will have a plan and move forward quickly."

Industry officials have said the effects of the freeze on new COLs and renewals will depend on how swiftly the NRC creates a plan to study the environmental impacts of its 2010 rules, which assert NRC's confidence that spent fuel can be stored safely in dry casks or pools and that a final geological repository will be established.

But whatever plan the NRC produces, it will not resolve the issue of finding a geological repository for high-level nuclear waste, said Macfarlane, a geologist and member of a blue-ribbon panel that studied nuclear-waste disposal. She said, "The NRC is an independent regulatory body. We do not make policy. That's Congress' job." Macfarlane said the U.S. "absolutely" needs a geological repository and called on Congress and the administration to move quickly to find a solution.

Macfarlane, who became chair on July 9, said she would work to improve communication and transparency at the NRC. She said the five commissioners are "a group of peer equals, one of whom has been [appointed] chair." Last year, the four other commissioners complained to the White House about the "leadership and management practices" of her predecessor, Gregory Jaczko, who announced in May he would resign as chairman.