A few weeks ago, House Republicans didn’t blink an eye as they enacted hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to programs that safeguard nuclear waste, research nuclear power, and train first responders to respond to weapons of mass destruction.
But as Japan battles what could be a Chernobyl-level nuclear disaster, those cuts are getting a second look -- especially with members of both parties agitating for the construction of new nuclear plants in the United States.
On Monday, House Democrats, including the House Energy and Commerce Committee's ranking member, Rep. Henry Waxman of California, called on the Energy and Commerce Committee to hold hearings on the state of government nuclear oversight. A Republican committee aide said a budget hearing with the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday will address the situation in Japan and U.S. nuclear safety.
With 135 total nuclear reactors in the United States, as well as storage facilities for radioactive waste and the threat of nuclear terrorism, the United States maintains a variety of programs to safeguard materials and prevent accidents. The programs range from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the industry’s primary safety regulator, to security programs, clean-up efforts, and disaster preparedness -- all designed to safeguard against potential catastrophe.
The Union of Concerned Scientists’ last major report on nuclear safety, from 2007, found that NRC enforcement of safety regulations was lax, and that security standards at nuclear facilities were inadequate to defend against credible threats. It also criticized still-stagnant efforts to find a long-term repository for nuclear waste and increase standards for any new reactors being built.
The NRC is primarily funded by licensing fees, and it would face no cuts in House Republicans’ budget proposal for the remainder of the year. But David Lochbaum, head of the UCS nuclear safety program, said that the main concern with the agency is its vigilance rather than its resources.
The Republican bill also includes language designed to prevent delays in approving Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste storage facility, a move opposed by President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
But it would cut $131 million from the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, which is responsible for safety research and nonproliferation efforts. It would also cut hundreds of millions from nuclear waste disposal and environmental clean-up programs; $97.1 million from nuclear nonproliferation efforts; and $1.4 billion from first-responder training for radiation, chemical, and biological disasters. That last cut would result in a reduction of 46,000 being trained for such emergencies, according to analyses provided by the House and Senate appropriations committees. Other cuts hit international nuclear security efforts, grants to protect ports, and Federal Emergency Management Agency preparations for all-hazards catastrophes.
In a letter to Obama sent Monday, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., warned that the government has no coherent plan to respond to a nuclear disaster, with confusion reigning over what agency would take charge during an emergency.
Obama, who has supported nuclear power over the objections of some members of his party, recommended increases for many of these programs in his fiscal 2011 budget. While agency administrators focus whatever money they receive on the core missions of their agencies, spreading resources too thin could result in costly delays, as failures at the Minerals Management Service revealed after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year.
Asked about U.S. nuclear policy on Monday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told reporters that nuclear power is essential, and that Japan's disaster was primarily the result of the tsunami, not safety failures.