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Up & Atom

President Joe Biden has elevated Democratic Commissioner Christopher T. Hanson to serve as Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  Mr. Hanson succeeds former Republican Chairman Christine Svinicki—the longest-serving Commissioner in the history of the agency—who stepped-down on January 20, 2021.  Although timing is uncertain, President Biden also is expected to nominate a fifth Commissioner to fill the former Chair’s vacant seat.  If that pick shares Chairman Hanson’s views, the agency’s longstanding threshold for intervenor challenges to license applications could be overturned.

The Five-Member Commission

By way of background, the NRC is headed by five Commissioners appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for staggered five-year terms.  By law, no more than three Commissioners may be from the same political party.  The President may designate any Commissioner to act as Chairman.  The Chairman is the NRC’s principal executive officer and official spokesperson, and is responsible for certain administrative, organizational, budgetary, and personnel functions of the agency.  In addition, the Chairman has ultimate authority for all NRC functions pertaining to an emergency involving an NRC license.  Notably, the Chairman has no special authority to formulate policy, promulgate regulations, issue orders, or adjudicate legal matters.  Rather, those functions are governed by the Commission as a collegial body, and the Chairman’s vote carries the same weight as votes from the other Commissioners.

Chairman Hanson’s Background

Chairman Hanson was sworn in as a Commissioner seven months ago to fill the remainder of former Commissioner Stephen Burns’s five-year term, which expires on June 30, 2024.  Prior to joining the NRC, Mr. Hanson served as a Congressional staffer on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and as a Senior Advisor in the Office of Nuclear Energy at the US Department of Energy.  He also has private-sector experience, having served as an energy consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton.  Mr. Hanson earned master’s degrees from the Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Valparaiso University.

The NRC’s Next Chapter

Following former Chairman Svinicki’s departure, the Commission has only four members, and is evenly divided with 2 Democrats and 2 Republicans.  Because Chairman Hanson will not have any special “tie breaking” authority, there will be a real possibility of Commission stalemates on matters that require affirmative Commission action.  With very few exceptions, a 2-2 vote prevents the Commission from acting on NRC Staff proposals or matters of agency policy.  President Biden will have an opportunity to fill the current vacancy, restoring the Commission to a full five-member compliment, but the timing of any potential nomination is unclear.

During his short tenure at the NRC, now-Chairman Hanson issued several dissents on Commission matters.  Of particular note, he (along with Commissioner Baran) recently criticized his colleagues for purportedly imposing contention admissibility standards in contested adjudicatory proceedings that, in his view, “far exceed” those in the NRC’s rules of practice and procedure.  In 1989, the Commission purposefully amended its regulations to make those standards “strict by design.”  Nevertheless, if President Biden’s pick to fill the fifth Commission seat shares Chairman Hanson’s view, the agency’s longstanding threshold for intervenor challenges to license applications could be effectively overturned.

Finally, Chairman Hanson will have an opportunity to exercise his unique authority on personnel matters early in his chairmanship.  The NRC’s current Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation (NRR), Ho Nieh, recently announced that he will leave the agency on January 30, 2021.  Following Mr. Nieh’s departure, and after consulting with the NRC’s Executive Director for Operations, Chairman Hanson will have an opportunity to nominate a permanent replacement, subject to confirmation by the full Commission.  Given the significant size and scope of the NRR regulatory portfolio, this may be Chairman Hanson’s first opportunity to steer the course of the agency’s day-to-day operations.