January-February 2013

Allison Macfarlane in the hot seat

Bethesda Magazine interview

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Sixteen months after a 2011 tsunami disabled three nuclear reactors in Japan, Allison Macfarlane took over as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Considered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors has fueled concerns in the United States and worldwide about the safety of nuclear power.

Macfarlane’s task: ensuring that the NRC follows through on safety recommendations developed for U.S. nuclear plants after the disaster.

A Bethesda resident, Macfarlane is the first geologist to serve as NRC chairman, and is a nationally recognized expert on nuclear policy and nuclear waste. Formerly an associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., the 48-year-old served on the White House Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which submitted its report on nuclear-waste disposal in January 2012.

At nearly 5-feet, 11-inches, Macfarlane cuts an imposing figure. But she laughs easily and projects a down-to-earth persona. In her new digs, she replaced the Federal-style furniture of her predecessor with a comfortable leather couch and matching armchairs.

Despite the demands of her job, Macfarlane says she’s committed to maintaining a healthy balance between work and family. When she’s not presiding over commission business, she’s spending time outdoors with her husband, anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, and their kids, 11-year-old Graham and 5-year-old Sasha. Weekends often find her on the sidelines of a local soccer field, cheering for her son, or on a family outing to a county park.

We spoke with her on a November afternoon in Rockville, at her office in the commission’s white marble building on Rockville Pike.

Q & A

How did you get interested in geology?

I was a kid who liked rocks. I had a rock collection and I grew up in Avon, Conn. There’s something called the Talcott Mountain Science Center, and I kept getting scholarships to the center, starting in fourth grade, for Saturday morning programs. You could spend the semester doing science or geology or computer science. That’s where I first did geology.

Did those childhood experiences influence you to study geology?

I always knew I wanted to do science. Then I got into [the University of Rochester] and I tried biology for a short time until I encountered all the premed students—and I just didn’t have the physics brain. My sister got the physics brain. I got the chemistry brain. And I tried chemistry, I actually minored in chemistry, but geology was just more interesting. It’s more real world, more applied, and you end up getting to go outside and you do a lot of your work outdoors. It’s fabulous.

As a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you made four trips to Nepal to do research in the Himalayas. What was that like?

My first trip was in 1989. It was life-changing. I had an American field assistant with me, and that was it, just us. Then we hired a Nepali guide and a cook and porters because you carry everything you need—tents, clothes, sleeping bags, food.

I realized in my dealings with the Nepalis how important culture is and how it’s easy to have misunderstandings. You know, like [we] were just insisting: We’ll help cook dinner, of course, that’s what we do in the U.S. There, hierarchy was really important, and they were the ones who were working for us and it became sort of a thing.

Nepal happened to have a revolution the second time I was there, which made it really much more exciting. They wanted to overthrow the monarchy. They had had a period of martial law and they relaxed it, so we went for a field season. My adviser was there, too, and he and I split off. I had a shortwave radio with me and was listening to the BBC. The reports were getting worse and worse. Eventually I heard they declared martial law again in Kathmandu—a 24-hour shoot-to-kill curfew. I decided: Well, maybe it’s time to leave.

When we started to see American and foreign aid workers coming out from Kathmandu and into the mountains, we realized things were not going so well. We got ourselves onto a truck somehow to get back into Kathmandu. We found a phone somewhere in a town closer to Kathmandu and called the American Embassy and they said, “The situation is fluid.” We were near some Brits and they said, “Get out.” Then we met some Israelis and they said, “Is there a problem?” It was a fascinating contrast.

What’s your favorite thing about being a geologist?

The best thing about being a geologist is being out in a field in the middle of nowhere and thinking, Wow, I’m probably the only human who’s ever been here. Because that’s what geology does, it makes you go off the trails. In Nepal, it was a little hard to go off the trails because off the trail is vertical that way or vertical this way.

There are parts of [the U.S.] where nobody else has been. That’s a really neat feeling.

Those Nepal trips taught you, however, that this type of research really wasn’t your thing.

I remember being out in the field in Nepal and sitting around one day and saying to my adviser, “Do you like your job? Do you like what you do?” And he said, “God, I love what I do. I can’t believe somebody pays me to do this. Every day I get up in the morning and I’m really excited.” And when he said that, I thought: Huh, I don’t really feel that way about what I’m doing right now, about geology. So I always knew it wasn’t quite right, what I was doing. But when I started doing a fellowship at the Kennedy School at Harvard, I realized that actually I really like what I do. And I still do. I’m happy to get up in the morning and go to work. I can’t believe somebody pays me to do it.

So you started building a career in academia. What sparked your interest in nuclear power?

I did a teaching job for three years and then decided to change gears and go into policy. I got a number of fellowships at different places that helped me do that. I wanted to do something more practical. I talked to my adviser and he said, “Well, you know, I was just involved in this issue about Yucca Mountain and nuclear waste disposal, and these guys don’t know any geology. Geology is so important and they don’t understand.”

So I thought: Maybe there’s something there. I actually did not get into the Yucca Mountain issue [over whether the federal government should use the Nevada site as a nuclear waste repository. The NRC was awaiting a federal appeals court decision in December on whether it should resume an evaluation of the site’s suitability]. I took a fellowship at Harvard in 1996 and got involved with plutonium disposal after the Cold War, and that was my real introduction into this field.

What do you bring from your experience as a geologist?

An attention to earth processes and, certainly after the Fukushima accident, which was instigated by an earthquake and then a related tsunami, it’s very important that we understand and continually update our knowledge of these earth processes and how they might affect nuclear facilities. We’re actually doing that as a result of the accident. One of the lessons we’ve learned from that is we are requiring plants to update their seismic hazard analysis and their flooding analysis, and we’re going to continue to look at other earth issues—tornados, other kinds of events.

Before the Fukushima accident, were the geologic aspects of nuclear reactor sites on anyone’s radar?

They were starting to be, yes. In fact, the NRC, along with the Department of Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute, had done an update to the seismic hazard map for the central and Eastern U.S. So that was actually in progress, to update seismic hazard analysis. But Fukushima put a fine point on it.

It turns out that the New Madrid fault zone [in the Southern and Midwestern U.S.] is probably more powerful than people had thought, to be honest. That’s why it was necessary to update that information. We’re also considering a proposal to require plants to update at least their seismic analyses every 10 years.

Do you anticipate that plants will be closed as a result of the updates?

No. But we’ll have to see what happens at each facility and what they come up with.

After Fukushima, what did the NRC do to reassure the public about the safety of U.S. nuclear facilities?

Since Fukushima, certainly there’s been a lot more attention from the public on nuclear power and nuclear issues. And rightly so. It was horrifying to watch what was going on in Fukushima. I know that a lot of my fellow citizens felt the same way. Clearly there’s a lot more tension on nuclear issues. It’s important for us as an agency to tell folks that we are working hard to ensure that the nuclear facilities in the U.S. are operating safely. After Fukushima, the NRC within three months issued what they call a “near-term task force report” that basically described 12 recommendations for improving the safety of the U.S. nuclear industry, and the agency’s been very fast to move on those. And the industry has been prompt in following through.  

What were some of those recom­­men­dations?

We need to make sure that plants are capable of handling what we call beyond-design-basis events—that they have equipment on site and ready to go—so extra diesel generators, extra pumps that are in a safe place, that aren’t at a flood level and won’t be flooded out like what happened at Fukushima. We’ve required the boiling water-type reactors to make sure they have hardened vents so that in the event of an accident, they can actually vent them.

We required instrumentation in spent fuel pools so that we can always know, no matter what, what the level of water is and what the temperature of water is—something that we didn’t know about at Fukushima during that accident. And we required that the plants have improved communication plans and can communicate in case of loss of cellphone service and such, and that they do have adequate staffing plans. And we’re in the process of considering a number of other potential changes.

Your predecessor, Gregory Jaczko, resigned after a tenure marked by battles with the other four commissioners and Congress. What have you done to set a new tone?

My approach to the job is to be collegial and collaborative. The way I view the commission—and again this is my academic influence—I view it like a very small academic department. One of us is selected to be the chairman and the rest are the other faculty. But we’re peer equals. And so my colleagues have their own areas of expertise. I rely on them. We collaborate. It works quite well. I am also like the CEO of a corporation. We do have 4,000 people who work here.

What is your view of the future of nuclear technology?

It’s important as a regulator not to appear to promote or have a view on that. It’s our job to ensure that the facilities operate safely. I feel pretty strongly about that. That’s our mission. And I’ve been really impressed with the staff here. They take that mission really seriously, all the way down to the resident inspectors at the reactor sites.

Why was this job appealing to you?

Because you can make a difference to make sure that the facilities operate safely, and we can also make a difference in communicating with the public and communicating with each other in the agency. My personal goals are to improve communications and certainly to follow through on the Fukushima recommendations and pay attention to some of the issues at the back end of the nuclear-fuel cycle, and pay attention to the intersections of Earth sciences and nuclear issues.

With such a high-profile job, is it hard to maintain a balance between work and your personal life?

A very important question and a significant question for not just women, but men, too. I was really struck by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article [on the struggle to create a work-life balance published last summer in The Atlantic]. It came out just as I was going through the confirmation process, so the timing was very appropriate. And I think this is something that as a society we need to pay attention to. Family is important. I prioritize it. So I make sure that I go home every night, cook dinner, help with homework, put people to bed, give baths, you know, walk dogs, etc. The way I try to balance it is by going in early, so I am here at 6:20 in the morning. My husband is an important part of the work-life balance.

But it’s also important to try to get in some exercise, too. So it’s not easy. I don’t know anybody who’s really solved this problem. You know, we work at it around the edges. But I refuse to give in. I insist on trying to maintain that, and I try to encourage my staff to take care of themselves. I also believe that if you work really hard, you can probably get four good hours of intense work [done] a day. I think this is a real academic point of view. And the rest of it is answering email, talking on the phone. So you don’t really need to work 12 hours. You really have to be efficient about your working time so you can get the most out of it.

How do you spend your free time?

We love to get out and hike and walk the dog out in the woods. We have a kayak and we have a canoe. Whenever we can get away, we use both. My son is quite a little field scientist. He’s become a real fisherman. My husband and I know nothing about fishing, but he’s just really gotten into it. At first, he said he was going to be a geologist like me, so he’s got quite a rock collection. He’s now diverted and decided to be a marine biologist. Who knows what my daughter’s going to be. She’s just a very energetic and enthusiastic and happy kid.

Do you have time to watch TV?

When it comes out, we’re devotees of Downton Abbey. But I have to admit, that we are catching up on Breaking Bad. As a chemist, I just love the opening credits when the periodic table comes up.

How do you feel about living in Bethesda?

We’re really close to downtown Bethesda, so we can walk to places, take the Metro. We like that convenience of it, actually. We lived in D.C. for a couple of years. Then we decided to buy a house, and schools were important. And we liked that the citizens of Montgomery County are dedicated to ensuring that the schools are well-funded and serve the students well.

Julie Rasicot is the associate editor for the magazine.