The shutdown of the U.S. government has made our nation’s nukes more dangerous than ever.
All but 300 of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 3,900 employees have been furloughed during the government shutdown. The NRC must monitor safety at the 100 reactors still licensed to operate in this country. That works out to about three staff per reactor, except that only half the 300 are resident inspectors. The nation’s nukes may be flying all but blind.
“Yes, I am worried,” said Ed Lyman, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, as the furloughs began. Among other things, Lyman complained that the cutbacks would delay the safety changes being made by the NRC in response to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in Japan. “But the most acute issue is assuring that the operating reactors” are safe. “I’m not expecting overnight that it’s going to be a collapse of safety,” he said. “You can only hope for the best that a situation doesn’t occur during this time.”
“The shenanigans by Republicans in Washington have put the safety and health of our entire nation, and the world, at severe unthinkable risk,” says Susan Shapiro, a New York organizer now circulating a petition demanding that all of the U.S.’ commercial reactors close down until the federal government reopens at full strength.
The commission has denied that there’s been a problem. According to Mark Sartorius, executive director for operations, thanks to a carryover fund, “the NRC was able to continue to keep its doors open a bit longer than the rest of the federal government.” But, he said, most of the commission has been “shut down due to the lapse in appropriations. Furlough notices were sent to all employees. At this time, only about 300 of our 3,900 staff members are reporting to duty. That number includes the resident inspectors, who continue to do their job at the nuclear power plants in your communities.”
Has the safety of our reactor fleet been compromised? Hell yes. A disaster, whether caused by an earthquake, tsunami, equipment breakdown or human error, would find the regulators seriously shorthanded. The NRC’s ability to deal with a nuclear crisis is dubious to begin with. But since Oct. 10, when the furloughs hit, there’s been virtually nobody home at all.