The idea of self-policing and minimizing government regulatory oversight worked so well for Boeing and its still-grounded 737 Max 8 jetliner fleet, the Trump administration now wants to expand those same powers to the nation’s aging nuclear power plants. What could possibly go wrong?
The industry insists that self-policing can work and that operators of the 90-plus nuclear plants across the country don’t need the kind of rigorous federal inspections that have been required annually or once every two years under previous administrations. Under plans now being contemplated, inspections would be reduced to as little as once every three years.
A Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff report, recently made public, recommends cutting back on nuclear reactor inspections to improve efficiency and save money. Competition in the energy-generating industry has grown much stiffer with the increased use of cheaper natural gas and renewable sources. Nuclear power generation has long struggled with high costs associated with long-term storage of radioactive waste and preventing a recurrence of reactor disasters such as those at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, Japan. Nuclear still ranks among the cleanest in terms of the ability to generate electricity with minimal greenhouse-gas emissions.
Various companies that own aging reactors are looking for ways to cut costs and remain competitive. In 2017, Illinois-based operator Exelon threatened to close three of its Illinois reactors unless the state allowed it to pass $170 million in costs to taxpayers and ratepayers. Exelon lists 15 sites around the country where it operates reactors, including Three Mile Island. NRC Commissioner Annie Caputo previously worked for Exelon.
Rare is the industry that welcomes heavy regulation and rigorous federal inspections. But history is rife with examples of how badly things can go wrong when the government steps back and allows companies in high-risk industries to police themselves.
Boeing faces billions of dollars in losses after two of its 737 Max 8 jetliners crashed. The Federal Aviation Administration’s acting administrator, Daniel Elwell, acknowledged before Congress in May that the agency had cut back on staff inspections and relied on manufacturers like Boeing to conduct their own inspections.
After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Congress imposed heavy regulations on the offshore oil industry to prevent any repeat of the explosion that killed 11 and sent millions of barrels of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. The Trump administration is working to cut those regulations back so the industry can return to policing itself.
Likewise, the administration worked with Republicans in Congress to reverse banking-industry regulations imposed after the 2007-2008 financial-industry meltdown that prompted the Great Recession — again on the premise that the industry is better off self-regulating.
The record on self-policing doesn’t bode well. But as the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.