By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The geologist nominated to head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission told senators on Wednesday that she plans to end the acrimony that plagued the agency under her predecessor, pledging respect for the four other members at the helm of the agency.
Allison Macfarlane, 48, was nominated to the top job by President Barack Obama last month after the resignation of Gregory Jaczko, whose tenure as chairman was marked by public criticisms about his abrasive management style from the four other members of the commission.
"An agency endowed with the public trust such as the NRC requires a respectful working environment to assure its integrity," Macfarlane told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The agency, which has about 4,000 staff, is working on sweeping reforms that could cost the operators of aging power plants millions of dollars.
Macfarlane is expected to be confirmed quickly by the Senate as early as this month.
"You're walking into a tough situation," said Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, chairman of the committee, who said senators would be watching the NRC closely to ensure relationships improve.
"I think you're going to bring a different touch," Boxer said.
Both Republican and Democratic senators went easy on Macfarlane during a two-hour long hearing dominated by the specter of past complaints about Jaczko's management style.
Last October, the other commissioners -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- took the unprecedented step of formally complaining to the White House about Jaczko's "increasingly problematic and erratic" behavior, and later testified on Capitol Hill that he was verbally abusive.
Jaczko has denied the most explosive of the charges against him, and said his departure from the NRC was "not at all" related to the strife at the agency.
If confirmed, Macfarlane would complete the year left in Jaczko's term. Her nomination is moving in tandem with that of Republican commissioner Kristine Svinicki, whose term expires on June 30.
Republicans have made Svinicki's reappointment to a five-year term a priority. Senator Jeff Sessions, who told Macfarlane her academic background did not give her the ideal experience to manage a large agency, said he would nonetheless support her.
"I think it will be the right thing to do both of these nominations and move them together," Sessions said.
Republicans pulled their punches when it came to Macfarlane's opinions on nuclear waste.
Macfarlane raised technical issues about the shuttered Yucca Mountain nuclear dump site in a 2006 book called "Uncertainty Underground," but Republicans who would like to revive the Nevada site did not mention the book at the hearing.
SVINICKI GETS TOUGHER GRILLING
Two senators said they did not support the re-nomination of Svinicki because they felt she was too close to the nuclear power industry.
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, told Svinicki she "appears to be a promoter of nuclear power" and said personal attacks on Jaczko were a "smokescreen for a philosophical divide" within the agency, where he said Jaczko took a hard line on safety issues.
Boxer told Svinicki she would vote against her reappointment because of what she described as a "lack of candor" about her past work on the Yucca Mountain issue.
Boxer also criticized Svinicki for opposing Boxer's request for an investigation into issues that led to a shut-down of Edison International's San Onofre nuclear plant in California.
Svinicki told Boxer that she had supported an NRC review of the problems that was underway before Boxer's request for an investigation.
"Despite my opposition, I know you're going to be confirmed," Boxer said.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Jackie Frank and Bob Burgdorfer)