WASHINGTON – Fewer mock commando raids to test nuclear power plants' defenses against terrorist attacks. Fewer, smaller government inspections for plant safety issues. Less notice to the public and to governors when problems arise.
They're part of the money-saving rollbacks sought by the nuclear industry under President Donald Trump and are approved or pending approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, largely with little input from the general public.
The nuclear power industry says the safety culture at the U.S. nuclear industry — 40 years after partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island — is "exceptional" and merits the easing of government inspections.
Maria Korsnick, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute trade group, said she welcomed changes in plant oversight procedure "to ensure that it reflects a more robust understanding of the current performance of the U.S. nuclear fleet."
Opponents say the changes are bringing the administration's business-friendly, rule-cutting mission to an industry where the stakes are too high to cut corners. While many of the regulatory rollbacks happening at other agencies under the administration may be concerning, "there aren't many that come with the existential risks of a nuclear reactor having a malfunction," said Geoffrey Fettus, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council on nuclear issues.
This week, the NRC released staff recommendations for rollbacks in safety inspections for the 90-plus U.S. nuclear power plants and for less flagging of plant problems for the public. Democratic lawmakers and one NRC commissioner expressed concern about the safety risks and urged the commission to seek broader public comment before proceeding.
The country's nuclear regulators were looking at "far-reaching changes to the NRC's regulatory regime without first actively conducting robust public outreach and engagement," Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a letter to NRC Chairwoman Kristine Svinicki.
Svinicki and two other NRC commissioners did not respond to requests for comment. David Castelveter, director of public affairs, said the NRC would respond directly to lawmakers on Pallone's letter.
A fourth commissioner, Jeff Baran, said he opposed cutting inspections and reducing oversight. He called for more public input on proposed rollbacks.
Nuclear regulators post notices of meetings on proposed rollbacks on oversight of nuclear power plants on the NRC website.
Lawmakers complained there's been scant notice to the public at large about the meetings or proposals.
U.S. nuclear plant operators have seen their operating costs rise as the nuclear fleet ages. Competition from cheaper natural gas and renewables is increasing marketplace pressure on nuclear power providers, making the financial costs of complying with NRC regulation ever more of an issue.
Korsnick, the trade group head, said the safety of workers and the public remains the priority. "Our outstanding performance as an industry is due an exceptional culture of safety at the nation's nuclear power stations and a strong, independent regulator," she said.
Edwin Lyman, a nuclear safety expert, pointed to a board move last fall, when the NRC cut the number of scenarios tested in commission-run mock commando raids at nuclear power plants. He said the security changes "are jeopardizing public health and safety." The latest recommendations for rollbacks in oversight, he said, are "just the tip of the iceberg."