Sunday, April 03, 2011

Deregulation By Other Means

I know folks are going to give me grief about it...but I’m about to tell you to go listen to Science Friday. Yes, that means that I listen to the ultra-geek show. This particular show is about the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Dai-ichi. And it’s already old -- from March 18, 2011. (I listen to the podcast of the show and I fall behind.)

What I want you to listen for is a little lesson in deregulation. Of nuclear power. In America. It isn’t the type of deregulation that conservatives say they are in favor of...but it is. It’s exactly what they are after.

You can download the podcast, fast forward to the 27:00 minute mark and start listening. You can read the transcript at the same link. Or you can just stay here and read the part I’m talking about. (Personally, I’d read or listen to the whole thing so you get the flavor of it all. But that’s me.)

FLATOW: Does it have anything to do with funding levels? I mean, you know, there are all these budgetary cut bills in Congress. Is any money being cut from those safety programs?

Mr. LOCHBAUM: Well, it's related to that. In June of 1998, the Senate threatened to cut the NRC's budget by 40 percent. Five hundred NRC workers would've - had been laid off. What the Senate told the NRC was to stop enforcing its regulations. You're annoying all these plant owners with all these fines and all the requirements to fix safety problems, so just back off.

So the NRC threatened with a huge budget cut like that. They did. They folded their tent and they went away. So, basically, NRC has been allowed to - it's kind of like MMS all over again.

FLATOW: You mean in Louisiana?

Mr. LOCHBAUM: Right. The NRC can do a good job if the Congress won't tie its hands.

FLATOW: And so you - they - you're saying they should reinstate those regulations?

Mr. LOCHBAUM: No. The regulations are there. They should - the Congress should allow the NRC to enforce the regulations. When the NRC was enforcing the regulations, in 1997, nine nuclear power plants were shut down the entire year to fix safety problems. The industry went to the Congress and said, look, you've got these guys off our back. We can't operate if we have to follow all these safety regulations. The Congress told the NRC to stop enforcement of safety regulations or we'll cut your budget by 40 percent. So the NRC played duck and cover.

FLATOW: And that's, you're saying, where we are now.

Mr. LOCHBAUM: That's where we are now. We're fortunate that we haven't had problems like Japan, but if we're hit with something like that or an earthquake in some place then we could - Japan media could be talking about our disaster.

And in case you wondered who threatened to cut Nuclear Regulatory Commission's budget by 40% (I know I did) -- that would be one Senator Pete Domenici. A Republican from New Mexico.

Wouldn’t you know it, that bit of information came from the same David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The same Mr. Lochbaum quoted above in the Science Friday piece. I found it on NuclearTownhall’s web site. (Is this internet thing neat or what?)

”LOCHBAUM: Well, we’ve also done some studies that show that the conditions in some of plants like Salem are exactly the same as they were when it was shut down fifteen years ago. So the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is just much less effective than it was in the 1990s. After 1998, the regulators ran away. On June 4th of that year, Senator [Pete] Domenici [of New Mexico] threatened to cut the NRC budget by 40 percent. About 500 NRC employees would have lost their jobs. So the NRC reacted by going underground and, like Sergeant Schultz, saying they see no safety problems. They hear nothing, they know nothing.”

My point in all this is that deregulation has a lot of faces. Even though we may have some decent regulations on the books, there are ways to make sure they aren’t enforced. Cutting the budget of departments in charge of enforcing regulations is one proven way of doing it. And if the people in favor of deregulation are willing to force the agency in charge of nuclear safety to stand down, they won’t think twice about doing it to the people in charge of ensuring that your food, medicine and air traffic control system are safe.

Don Brown
April 3, 2011

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