Out of control?

While industry looks for handouts, NRC gives nod to reduced safety oversight

By Linda Pentz Gunter

It was no surprise really, when the first to line up with outstretched palms as Congress debated and formulated its now passed $2 trillion coronavirus-prompted emergency relief bill, were nuclear corporations.

The sinking nuclear power industry spotted an economic lifeline and couldn’t wait to make a grab for it. The Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying arm of the nuclear power industry, rushed off a letter to congressional leaders asking for a 30% tax credit and waivers for existing regulatory fees.

One of NEI’s apparently needy recipients is the financial fiasco known as Vogtle 3 and 4, the new nuclear power plant construction project in Georgia, which is already more than five years behind schedule and is projected to cost $28 billion, double the original predicted price.

NRC at Vogtle

The nuclear industry wants federal funding to keep construction going at the over-budget, behind schedule and unneeded Vogtle 3 and 4 nuclear power plant site in Georgia. (Photo: NRC)

The two new Georgia reactors aren’t needed, and their continued slow progress is by no means a matter of national security right now — or at all. But the NEI would like to see a nice fat grant go to Georgia Power to continue construction there, even though the company has already received two federal loan guarantees totaling $12 billion. 

In addition, the company is also gouging ratepayers in advance to cover the costs for the two reactors through the state’s Construction Work in Progress law, with no guarantee that they will ever reach completion.

Before long, the nuclear weapons manufacturers got in on the act as well. Wrote the group, Code Pink: “Boeing has the audacity to demand a $60 billion taxpayer bailout for their shareholders and CEO.”

Boeing is responsible for the Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, to be replaced this year with the misleadingly named Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. Boeing has also already received a $26.7 million contract from the U.S. Navy for Trident II D5 ballistic missile maintenance, rebuilding and technical services.

Astonishingly, it was ultra conservative senator, Ted Cruz, who was one of those who pushed back against the corporate bailouts for the likes of Boeing and GE, manufacturer of the ill-fated Fukushima nuclear power plants and similar boiling water reactors in the US that are meltdowns waiting to happen. 

Cruz tweeted that “some are pushing for a special carve-out just for Boeing & GE. That would be WRONG. Millions are losing jobs; we don’t need bailouts or corporate welfare — those companies should participate in the same liquidity programs as everyone else.”

But Boeing apparently got its wish. A $17 billion federal loan package contained in the stimulus bill passed by both the House and Senate and signed by President Trump on March 27, “was crafted largely for the company’s benefit,” according to reporting in the Washington Post.

Boeing may also be able to dip its fingers into the “$58 billion the Senate package is providing in loans for cargo and passenger airlines, as well as the $425 billion in loans it is allocating to help firms, states and cities hurt by the current downturn,” wrote the Washington Post, even though, as Code Pink pointed out, alluding to the two 737 MAX disasters, Boeing is responsible for “defective civilian planes that plummet from the sky in mid-flight.”

Boeing shares soared more than 24% on the day the Senate bill passed.

The US is already spending $35.1 billion a year on its nuclear weapons arsenal. As the timely graph below from ICAN points out, this money could be redirected to a wealth of essential needs that would help quell the novel coronavirus in the US. 

US spending

But instead, our leadership nationally, and in some states like Texas, have thrown away their moral compass and are embarking on a Nazi style demand that the elderly engage in voluntary self-culling, by choosing to succumb to the coronavirus so others may live.

It’s not yet clear what portion of the stimulus money might go to the nuclear power industry, but the renewable energy sector took a hit. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, “the renewable energy industry had asked for — but did not get — extensions of deadlines related to construction or completion of solar and wind projects, without which they could lose access to time-sensitive tax credits. Industry associations were hopeful they’d be included in any later relief package.”

There is also a $400 billion slush fund in the present legislation which can be used for loans and loan guarantees for large companies. Watch for the nuclear power industry to line up for a share of that in addition to its earlier pitch for a $23 billion bailout, which Lukas Ross, senior policy analyst with Friends of the Earth, called “a new low bar,” and an attempt to use the coronavirus crisis “to try and brazenly grab more cash.”

Meanwhile, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), in its usual fashion, has used the opportunity presented by the corona crisis to relax its already somnific safety oversight even more, and will allow nuclear power plant operators to defer safety maintenance, inspections and fitness for duty requirements during the outbreak.

“Regulations to ensure safety should be strengthened at a time like this — not weakened,” Kevin Kamps, radioactive waste specialist at Beyond Nuclear, told Power Magazine. “It means operating nuclear plants without basic safety inspections.”

One measure would be to allow workers to put in longer shifts than safety regulations allow, a measure that would place unnecessary additional “stress and strain on workers that need to be fully attentive and alert in sensitive jobs,” Kamps told the Carolina Public Press. He recommended powering down reactors instead, particularly given the current reduction in demand.

Nuclear inspections

The NRC could allow nuclear power plant safety inspections to be reduced during the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo: NRC)

But if the coronavirus pandemic causes higher than usual absenteeism among vital nuclear plant personnel, the NRC has a plan for that.

Under normal circumstances, operating with too few control room staff is a safety violation. But under the coronavirus conditions, this would be exempted, or forgiven by the NRC, creating an added safety risk.

During a recent NRC and industry telephone meeting on the topic, Beyond Nuclear’s director of reactor oversight, Paul Gunter, asked whether the NRC had supplied its reactor site personnel with sufficient protective equipment, masks, and respirators, as per the Centers for Disease Control guidelines. “They blew it off, Gunter said. “They claimed it was a matter for OSHA.” Industry representatives on the call remained silent on the matter.

Gunter added that Kamps’s suggestion to power down reactors in regions where the demand was reduced and excess generating capacity was already high, could allow for resting the remaining workforce and keeping them healthy and ready to replace workers at still operating plants where personnel have been hit hardest by reactor operator shortages and extended security shifts.

“We should be planning on how to keep stable and safety-compliant electricity going,” Gunter said. 

“One way would be to create a protected pool of sequestered nuclear utility workers. But that is not happening. The industry is dictating to the regulator what the agenda will be.” So, business as usual.

Headline photo: NRC commission chair, Kristine Svinicki, visits the control room of the Cooper, NE nuclear power plant. Photo: NRC.

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