A First Look
As had been widely rumored, the White House this week nominated Stephen Burns and Jeffrey Baran for positions as NRC Commissioners. If confirmed, the two would replace George Apostolakis, whose term ended June 30, and William Magwood, who is about to assume the position of Director-General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in Paris.
Since I know one of the two quite well (I worked with Steve Burns while we were both at NRC), and the other not at all, I will try to limit this discussion to factual information so I can treat both of the candidates equally. (I will allow myself one digression, which will become obvious in a minute.)
Steve Burns is well known, not only to me, but to most of the nuclear community, as he served as an attorney at the NRC from 1978 to 2012, rising from an entry-level legal position to the position of Deputy General Counsel in 1998, and General Counsel of the NRC in 2009. He left NRC in 2012, to join the NEA as head of their Legal Affairs office. The NEA website has a brief bio of him, noting that he received several high-level performance awards during his career at NRC.
Jeff Baran is much less known to the nuclear community. He is also an attorney and has worked on Capitol Hill since 2003. He was most recently appointed Democratic Staff Director for Energy and Environment in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce by Rep. Henry Waxman. He has indicated that his education sparked an interest in pursuing a career in public interest environmental law. Also in the course of his education, he served as an intern for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where he worked on a case challenging the EPA’s issuance of a pollutant discharge permit under the Clean Water Act, and worked on Freedom of Information requests for information on the implementation by states of the Safe Drinking Act standards.
Both candidates have already had questions raised about them. Questions about Baran revolve mostly around his lack of experience with nuclear regulation. Questions about Burns range from concerns about his role during Chairman Gregory Jaczko's tenure to concerns that he is coming from the NEA.
I will leave to others to debate the importance of Baran's lack of experience on nuclear matters. (I should note that the NRDC is usually regarded as anti-nuclear, but it appears--assuming the article cited above describes his internship completely--that Baran didn't work on nuclear issues during his internship there.) I will also leave to others to assess the significance of Burns' role during Jaczko's tenure, as I don't feel sufficiently familiar with all the details.
However, I feel I must comment on the concerns that continue to be raised about high-level people coming from or going to the NEA because the NEA is viewed as "promoting nuclear power." Since I served in the NEA, I know that not to be true. And NEA has several strongly anti-nuclear countries in its membership that make sure NEA focuses on nuclear safety and regulation, legal issues, radiation protection, waste, and research collaboration. So far, I have seen this criticism more with respect to Bill Magwood than to Steve Burns, which has surprised me. I simply don't think the criticism is warranted for either individual.
Finally, I would point out that, although there are two nominees, this is not the type of pairing that has become the new normal. That is, it is not a Democrat paired with a Republican. It is two Democrats, as both of the vacancies were positions held by Democrats. It is a little hard to say how this will play in the Senate, but it is an unusual set of circumstances. Also, Congress is scheduled to go on recess at the end of July, and Magwood leaves at the end of August. Unless Congress acts very quickly (and positively) on both candidates, which seems unlikely given the circumstances, come September 1, the Commission will be operating with only three Commissioners, two of them Republican. At the moment, Congress has been moving slowly on other confirmations, even where there is no controversy.