Cleverer and Cleverer

A Cunning Obama Would Tap Packer and Macfarlane To Fill NRC Vacancies

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The Tuesday, May 5 opinion piece on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Cleverer and Cleverer,” incorrectly claimed that the NRC recently reclassified depleted uranium from Class C waste to Class A waste, which has less rigorous handling requirements. The recent ruling by the NRC actually decided against reclassifying depleted uranium — which is currently Class A waste — to a level with stricter handling requirements. Because of an editing error, a previous version of this article omitted the last two paragraphs.

It was all the way back in the middle of November when I first wrote about the brewing issue of appointments to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. To catch you up: the NRC is led by a five-man commission, with one of them serving at the President’s discretion as the chairman of the body. The commission controls the high level nuclear regulatory policy in the United States, and as such plays an important role in the development of nuclear power.

One of the commission seats is vacant, with another to come open in June 2009 — the four filled seats are occupied by Gregory Jaczko, a Democrat and former science advisor to Harry Reid, and three Republicans: Chairman Dale Klein, Kristine Svinicki, and Peter Lyons (Lyons’ term runs out in June).

Looking at the situation in November, I mused that the NRC appointments would be a revealing exercise in how the Democrat-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled White House would decide the balance of power between their two branches. Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, is a high priority target for Republicans in 2010, and would love to cinch his re-election by putting two more of his own men on the NRC to guarantee his constituents a victory over the decades-long effort to site a nuclear waste repository in his home state of Nevada.

Obama on the other hand, given his past ties to the industry, the favorable polling that nuclear receives, and his relatively moderate views on the subject, would probably prefer not to hand the NRC to Harry Reid’s sharks. Since both sides couldn’t have it their way simultaneously, I eagerly waited to see who would win out in this battle of wills.

Since his inauguration however, Obama has not put forward a name to fill the open spot on the commission and hasn’t even removed Klein as chairman. Besides leaving my curiosity unsatisfied, Obama’s inaction has left quite a few anti-nuclear environmentalists seething as the Republican-tilted commission continues to set rules the anti-nukes do not like, such as the recent reclassification of depleted uranium from Class C to Class A waste.

At first I thought the delay was simply Obama stalling on an unappetizing decision, but now I see the logic; if the president plays his cards right, he can mollify Reid, avoid upsetting the pro-nuclear contingent in the Senate, and still come away with considerable influence over the NRC.

Here’s how: if Obama can wait things out until the second commissioner seat opens up in June, he can put forward two candidates as a package deal: Allison Macfarlane and Daniel Packer.

Macfarlane, a long-time nuclear critic from George Mason University, is not a new name; she’s been Reid’s handpicked favorite since the NRC vacancy first appeared in 2007. By contrast, Packer is something of a recent discovery. A pro-nuclear Democrat and former CEO of Entergy New Orleans, Packer broke down barriers in the world of nuclear power as the first African-American to manage a nuclear plant in the United States. Packer’s close ties to the nuclear industry make him an uncomfortable selection for many anti-nuclear groups, but his deep experience in utility operation would be reassuring to nuclear advocates.

Individually, Packer and Macfarlane are tough sells, but taken together, they form a reasonable compromise. It’s hard for Harry Reid to criticize the paired appointment of Macfarlane and Packer when it means that he will have personally selected 40 percent of the commission. Meanwhile, pro-nuclear groups will struggle to justify a filibuster of Macfarlane when they are being handed a man as credentialed as Packer.

With these two appointments, the NRC will be split between Reid’s water-carriers on one side, the incumbent Republicans on the other, and Packer in the middle to provide the swing vote. If Obama can establish a rapport with Packer, he will have considerable influence over NRC decisions without any of the headaches that such influence would normally imply: if Reid comes to him and makes demands, Obama is free to throw up his hands and say that he simply can’t sway as pro-nuclear a man as Packer. If Obama is in the mood to indulge Reid, he can use his traction, and demand compromises from Reid commensurate with the herculean effort it takes to move the implacable Packer. Pro-nuclear groups in the meanwhile will find it tough to attack one of their own when Packer makes the occasional concession to Nevada.

A Packer-Macfarlane appointment offers Obama the best of all worlds: a balanced appointment process, considerable influence over NRC policy making, and a constant, defensible wellspring of political capital to use in the Senate. Given all the troubles Obama has had in past appointments, this could prove a refreshing opportunity.