Criteria for serving on NRC

There have been a significant number of questions raised about Allison Macfarlane’s nomination to the NRC commission with the stated intent to make her chair of the same as soon as she is sworn in as a commissioner. Lots of comments both for and against her nomination have clouded the issues.

I propose that perhaps a better approach is to create a clear set of criteria for both serving on the commission and serving as chair. Because the chair of the NRC must act as the top administrator for an organization with 4000 employees and has considerable decision making power in emergencies, the degree of expertise needs to be significantly higher as chair. Some of those skills can be learned while serving as a commissioner, but should not be developed “on the job” as chair of the NRC.

I tend to prefer criteria that are verifiable by observable behavior. This allows clear questions that require the candidate to demonstrate her qualifications with past actions.


Ethical behavior is a basic requirement for both commissioners and the chair of the NRC. There are several aspects of Ethics in this context are a requirement to be committed to technical and science based regulatory oversight. A committed scientist would be able to discuss when sound data changed a position, especially in areas beyond normal expertise.

A strong regulator also must set aside political beliefs and evaluate issues brought before the commission without regard to political motivation. If even the appearance of political motivation exists, the individual must recuse herself from any decisions related to such motivations. The NRC is not about policy, only about safety of nuclear facilities. Personal opinion cannot unduly influence decision-making within the commission.

Subject Matter Expertise

Subject Matter Expertise can include technical, legal, or regulatory expertise when considering the NRC.


No one can reasonably be expected to be an expert across the many areas of responsibility within the NRC. However, it is reasonable that all commissioners have expertise in one or areas that routinely come before the commission. It should be expected that the commissioner’s primary area of expertise would be one that at least occasionally comes before the commission. Learning beyond traditional degree programs is certainly an acceptable way to gain knowledge in additional areas. Such knowledge might even be gained during time as a commissioner.


Because the chair has significant influence during emergencies and serves a critical function in the smooth function of the commission, it is important that the chair have broad understanding of the technology, legal, and regulatory considerations over which the NRC is responsible.

Dr. Jaczko’s lack of such expertise led to a number of statements and incidents that required retractions by the NRC. Including, evacuation zone recommendations in Japan, as well as stating oversight concerns that go well beyond what the NRC legally can consider. In addition, there are regulatory and technical areas of overlapping agencies. The chairman should at least be familiar with how the EPA, local officials, and utility interact under emergency conditions. Equally important is an understanding of the division of responsibility between State Department, the DOE, and other agencies for proliferation and export control. This can be learned, but usually over a year or two as a commissioner.


An obvious requirement for all commissioners, since they are each required to both directly manage their support staff as well as provide leadership to the broader industry.


Commissioners have relatively small staff to manage. Some limited demonstration of managing and/or interpersonal skills is sufficient. Public speaking is a skill that, while not necessary to be an effective decision maker and regulator, is important in being effective in advocating for change and adequate oversight within the industry.


Chair is leading an agency of 4000 people. It is important that the person in that position have demonstrated the ability to direct a large team with layers of reporting below. Examples would include: Department Chair or dean of engineering at a university, or a management position in DOE or a national lab would be appropriate.

Open Minded

A demonstrated willingness to consider new approaches, technologies, and innovation to improve safety and performance is important for all commissioners. Commissioners should be open-minded in seeking to understand issues, reviewing innovative solutions and acknowledging that multiple approaches to problem solving are valid.


The NRC is an unusual structure for a federal agency. No individual is given ultimate power within the commission, rather five commissioners are expected to work as a team developing consensus and driving toward a science based regulatory policy and enforcement regime. Given recent past history on the commission, both commissioners and the chair must be consummate team players, always seeking to advance the agenda of the team. Individuals seeking personal gain, recognition, or personal agendas should be viewed with great concern.


Commissioners should be able to demonstrate effective team work. Including working within a team to develop consensus, accepting alternate approaches, the usual give and take of team membership.


The chair of the NRC should be able to provide demonstrated ability to work in a “first among equals” team. Because the NRC’s unique 5 member commission makes all policy decisions as a group, the chair must be able to lead in this environment to develop consensus basis rulings and guidance to the staff performing the work.

Similar working environments would be a leadership role in a team of peers that successfully completed its mission. Such evaluations should be supplemented by team member comments.


Dr MacFarlane may well be a qualified NRC commissioner; she may even be qualified to chair the commission. What I ask for, however, is that such qualification be documented in past performance and demonstrated for the rest of us to see BEFORE she takes office as a commissioner. Even, more importantly, before President Obama (or anyone else) nominate her to the position of chair of the NRC.

Events over the past year or more have made it quite clear the chaos and potentially disastrous consequences of a chairman who lacks understanding of the NRC’s role and an ability to lead such an important commission.

6 thoughts on “Criteria for serving on NRC”

  1. Another quality to add to the list which was suggested by Kirk Dorius after I asked him the same question at the recent Thorium Energy Alliance Conference in Chicago. He summed it up in one word. “Curiosity.” Part of chairman’s job should be to have a commitment to fully understanding the potential for alternative nuclear technology.

    • That was proposed to me in slightly different words by others. I tried to capture that quality in Open-Mind. I don’t demand that NRC commissioners be willing to study and fully understand everything about the industry. I do believe they should be open-minded to alternate approaches.

      But, yes, curiosity is a great attribute.

  2. It’s simple. NRC should be a technical organization, not a political one. Nobody needs a definition of these things. They just need to 1. admit they’ve deliberately politicized the org and 2. stop doing that. Problem solved!

    • Carl,

      In an ideal world that’s true, but I recognize that the world isn’t ideal. Providing consistent guidelines for qualifications can help remind everyone what we’re really looking for in commissioners. It also helps demonstrate to others that we are really picking qualified technically competent people.

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