By MATTHEW DALYAssociated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama's nominee to chair the Nuclear Regulatory Commission promised Wednesday to try to restore harmony at an agency marked by discord in recent years.
Allison Macfarlane, a geologist named to lead the NRC last month, said she will push to make the agency more open, efficient and transparent.
Appearing at a Senate hearing, Macfarlane pledged "a strong commitment to collegiality at all levels," saying an agency empowered to protect public safety, such as the NRC, "requires a respectful working environment to assure its integrity."
If confirmed by the Senate, Macfarlane would replace Gregory Jaczko, who announced his resignation last month after a tumultuous three-year tenure in which he came under fire for an unyielding management style that fellow commissioners and agency employees described as bullying.
Jaczko, a Democrat, led a strong response to the nuclear disaster in Japan and was a favorite of industry watchdogs, who called his emphasis on safety a refreshing change from previous agency chiefs who were close to the nuclear industry or who came from it.
But scientists, fellow commissioners and many rank-and-file staffers said Jaczko had created a chilled working environment at the NRC, which oversees safety at the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors.
Macfarlane, 48, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., is widely seen as a consensus builder. She won praise from fellow panel members during her service on a presidential commission that studied new strategies to manage nuclear waste.
At Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Environment Committee, Macfarlane complimented senators on their questions, even telling Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., that his home state is among the most beautiful places she's ever seen. Barrasso, a sharp critic of Jaczko, quickly agreed.
Macfarlane appeared at the hearing alongside Republican Kristine Svinicki, who has been nominated by Obama for a new five-year term on the commission. The joint hearing for Macfarlane and Svinicki continues a recent Senate tradition of considering NRC nominees from opposing parties at the same time. Both nominations are expected to be approved.
One of the few sour notes during a generally upbeat hearing came from Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who questioned whether Macfarlane's academic credentials qualified her to lead an agency with 4,000 employees and a $1 billion budget.
"Your background is not the background I would normally look for in a chairman of the NRC," Sessions told Macfarlane.
Other Republican senators expressed similar concerns about Macfarlane's lack of management experience, although none said they would oppose her nomination because of it.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the environment panel, showed no such reluctance, declaring that she would vote against Svinicki. Boxer accused Svinicki of lying to her during Svinicki's confirmation hearing five years ago.
Svinicki testified that she did not work directly on the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada she was an Energy Department employee in the 1990s.
"She clearly did" work on Yucca Mountain and even co-authored a report on acceptance of nuclear waste there, Boxer said.
Svinicki said she did not work on the Energy Department's application to designate Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear repository, a distinction Boxer called meaningless.
Svinicki, a nuclear engineer and former Senate GOP aide, was among four NRC commissioners who publicly criticized Jaczko's management style last year. The commissioners - two Democrats and two Republicans - sent a letter to the White House last fall expressing "grave concern" about Jaczko' s actions, which they said were abusive and "causing serious damage" to the commission.
Jaczko announced his resignation May 21 ahead of a potentially blistering report due out soon from the NRC's inspector general, who has been investigating Jaczko's actions for more than a year.
Follow Matthew Daly's energy coverage on Twitter: (at)MatthewDalyWDC
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.