WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Thursday he will nominate Allison Macfarlane, an expert in nuclear waste, as the nation's top nuclear safety cop, seeking to turn the page on a period of bitter acrimony at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Macfarlane, a geologist, will face the challenge of making the five-member commission work more collegially as it implements the biggest changes the nuclear power industry has faced in years, reforms sparked by the damage done to Japan's Fukushima complex by an earthquake and tsunami last year.
She will replace Gregory Jaczko, whose term was marked by accusations from his four fellow commissioners that his bad temper had created a hostile work environment.
But first, Macfarlane, 48, will face tough questions from Republicans who want to revive the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada. Macfarlane has been a critic, writing a book in 2006 about the technical issues at the site called "Uncertainty Underground."
"She's not anti-nuclear, but she's certainly not going to take her instructions from the industry," said Frank von Hippel, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at Princeton who has written academic papers with Macfarlane.
"I've argued that the NRC has been subject to regulatory capture. Allison is certainly not captured by the industry," he said.
Married to an anthropologist who has studied nuclear weapons scientists and anti-nuclear activists, Macfarlane is an academic who teaches at George Mason University. She has also worked at Harvard, Georgia Tech and Stanford.
"She's very objective," said Albert Carnesale, who worked with Macfarlane on a Blue Ribbon Commission that earlier this year recommended a new national strategy for finding a place to store toxic nuclear waste.
"Even when she has a view, she's open to changing it, if new evidence or new arguments are presented that would convince her to do so," said Carnesale, a former chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, and a nuclear engineer.
Her colleagues also describe her as able to work professionally under pressure, an essential asset given reports by the agency's inspector general and during hearings on Capitol Hill that Jaczko, 41, had made some senior female employees cry.
Jaczko has consistently denied the reports. He told Reuters this week his decision to resign was "not at all" related to the accusations.
Macfarlane is unlikely to get mired in personality conflicts, said Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, describing Macfarlane as "somebody you might like to go to a Celtics game with.
"She has a winning way. She has a wonderful smile; she is a friendly person; she is a nice person.
"None of those things, per se, get you very far in Washington. I think she'll find it stressful, but I suspect she'll be very adaptable and successful," Allison said.
Macfarlane's nomination was hailed by nuclear critics like the Union of Concerned Scientists and Edward Markey, the Democratic congressman from Massachusetts.
Industry supporters had a more tempered reaction.
"While she was not my choice, she's certain to be an improvement over the incumbent," said Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican Leader.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat who has long fought to keep the nuclear waste dump out of his home state of Nevada, said he would work quickly to get Senate approval of Macfarlane's nomination.
Reid said he would pair Macfarlane's nomination with that of Kristine Svinicki, a Republican commissioner whose term is up for renewal next month. That strategy could help both appointments move more quickly through the often gridlocked Senate.
James Inhofe, top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, has already signaled he will ask Macfarlane about her lack of experience managing a large organization like the NRC, which has 4,000 employees.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobby group, noted Macfarlane "has been an active contributor to policy debates in the nuclear energy field for many years" and urged the Senate to confirm Macfarlane and Svinicki.
Many lawmakers are still angry that Obama shut down plans for Yucca Mountain, which Congress designated for nuclear waste by law.
Republicans on the House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee slammed Macfarlane's nomination in a statement, calling her an "anti-nuclear activist" for her criticism of Yucca.
It's an issue she will have to brace for at a confirmation hearing slated for June at the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, said Per Peterson, a nuclear engineer from the University of California.
Peterson traveled to Finland and Sweden with Macfarlane to study nuclear waste repositories there as part of the Blue Ribbon Commission, and speaks highly of both her "interpersonal skills" and her technical expertise.
Peterson he hopes Congress will look at the Blue Ribbon panel's detailed recommendations and see how Macfarlane's expertise can help the commission as it develops new safety standards and regulations for nuclear waste for the years ahead.
"She clearly is a person who asks tough questions," Peterson said. "I've not seen her do anything unreasonable."
Additional reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Anthony Boadle, Philip Barbara and Lisa Shumaker