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Nuclear, Dude 

When it comes to terrorism and U.S. atomic power plants, we may as well put Homer Simpson in charge

Wednesday, Jan 8 2003
It's another quiet day at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Homer snores at his desk while his dog licks doughnut crumbs from his limp hands. Lenny's hung a hammock in another room. Burns sleeps, too. Smithers dozes, curled up next to Burns' chair.

Suddenly, Groundskeeper Willie and Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon burst into Homer's safety inspection chamber. Willie's hair is even more disheveled than usual. Apu's hair is just as bad. Their faces are dirty; Apu appears to have grown a wild beard. Their clothing is shredded, and their crazed, distraught expressions make them look like Scottish and Indian versions of John Walker Lindh. Once they're both inside Homer's safety monitor chamber, Apu guards the door, arms spread. Willie turns toward Homer and raises an unidentifiable gray object over his head roughly the size and shape of a box cutter.

Homer has been sinking deeper into sleep. His head flops directly onto the "PLANT DESTRUCT: PLEASE DO NOT PUSH" button. The room comes alive with "woop, woop" sirens and red emergency lights. A mechanical voice says, "Core meltdown in five seconds ... four ..."

Unfazed, Willie lunges toward Homer's control panel. With a smooth James Bond tumble, Willie shoves the now-identifiable box-knife-size key into a control panel slot marked "Reset."

Willie uses his free hand to snatch a miniature walkie-talkie from his pocket. The flashing lights and "woop, woop"s subside, yielding to what sounds like a dynamo winding down.

Willie: [Walkie-talkie pressed to his face. Unperturbed, yet tired.] Red Condah tae Blue Leadah. The milk didnae spill aet midday Madam. Ouet.

Screen splits to show Marge at home in her kitchen.

Marge: [Also into walkie-talkie, wearily.] Thank you very much boys. We'll speak again tomorrow.

Cut to Willie and Apu, retreating through the air duct from whence they came. Willie's pants rip on a nail. Apu's hair becomes even more disheveled as it scrapes along the dusty duct. His face catches cobwebs as he goes, enhancing further the illusion of a Taliban beard.

Apu: [Tired, irritated. His demeanor that of an alienated worker in an impossible bureaucracy.] I continue to believe this to be honorable work, yet I cannot lie to myself: At moments it can seem veddy, veddy frustrating.

No, SF Weekly has not become so keen on entertaining that we've resorted to publishing The Simpsons' scripts. The aforementioned scenario is not a Simpsons episode (or at least not one that's aired yet). It's actually a dramatization of a just-released federal report that depicts the bureaucratic malaise prevailing in the world of nuclear power regulation. Indeed, if not so rife with depictions of government hypocrisy and grave danger to the American people, the report might be as hilarious as an animated sitcom.

Released last month by the Office of Inspector General of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which serves as a sort of watchdog of the watchdog NRC, the report paints a picture of bureaucratic frustration and confusion that could have been scripted for Springfield, USA. Titled OIG Survey of NRC's Safety Culture and Climate, the report paints a picture of a burned-out, ill-trained, ill-informed, overworked cadre of federal regulators who believe their agency is ineffective and increasingly subject to manipulation by the privately owned nuclear power industry.

The inspector general's survey -- released while President George W. Bush pursues an energy policy touting the "revival" of the nuclear power industry, and as the country supposedly prepares for possible terrorist assault -- is hardly unique in its depiction of Simpsons-esque incompetence in the regulation of U.S. nuclear power plants.

In September, a nonprofit group called the Project on Government Oversight released the results of a series of interviews with more than 20 nuclear power plant guards at 13 facilities across the country; three-quarters of those guards believed their plants could not withstand terrorist attack. The guards, some of whom earn as little as $9 per hour, told interviewers they believed security teams charged with protecting nuclear plants were undermanned, underequipped, and undertrained.

Right now, San Luis Obispo-area officials are fighting a proposal by PG&E to build an on-site storage facility for spent radioactive fuel at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which critics say could be vulnerable to terrorist attack. County Supervisor Peg Pinard says the facility -- whose emissions could reach San Francisco in a couple of hours, weather conditions permitting -- should be buried underground, where it would be more difficult for terrorists to assault. Representatives of PG&E and the NRC say the current, above-ground design is safe enough.

Six weeks ago, the New York Times obtained a copy of a secret nuclear industry report showing that a focus on production over safety led to lax oversight of nuclear plants. At an Ohio nuclear facility, for example, corrosion went unnoticed as it ate away a 70-pound piece of steel some 6 inches thick, threatening a potentially catastrophic leak of cooling water from the reactor, the paper reported. While incidents such as this aren't commonplace, the sorts of safety lapses that led to it are, the Times quoted the confidential report as saying.

The irony of this nuclear plant situation is familiar to any American following current national politics: Our president and his Republican cohorts pepper every third utterance with the phrase "protect the American people," while simultaneously pursuing policies exacerbating Americans' vulnerability to terrorist attack. This inconsistency is symptomatic of a little-mentioned quandary for Republicans, who so far have been political beneficiaries of the Sept. 11 tragedy: In many ways the GOP's historical role as the Party of Business is philosophically incompatible with its aspiration to be the Party of Homeland Security.

Republicans have traditionally sided with industry against safety regulation. And Americans feel particularly unsafe these days. To name one example of this unreconcilable gap, experts agree that simple fire code enforcement of the type long opposed by the New York real estate industry might have saved many hundreds of lives Sept. 11.

Republicans have traditionally sided with management in labor disputes. President Bush cemented this reputation when he threatened to veto the Homeland Security bill unless federal workers gave up some civil service protections. This was an odd time for such a high-profile, morale-deflating standoff, given that federal, state, and municipal workers will be the ones protecting, rescuing, and healing Americans in the event of another terrorist attack.

The Bush administration has positioned itself as the U.S. energy industry's reliable friend. The administration's "Nuclear Power 2010" strategy proposes subsidizing the construction of 50 new plants during the next eight years. American energy self-sufficiency will depend on increasing dependence on "clean nuclear power," Bush said during a recent speech. Again, this is a posture that would seem to be at odds with a people yearning to be ... safe. Nuclear plants make an obvious terrorist target, given their potential for broadcasting mass death. President Bush revealed in his State of the Union address that diagrams depicting U.S. nuclear plants were found at Afghanistan terrorist strongholds.

But last year, Republican legislators followed the nuclear power industry's lead and beat back an effort to require that power plants be guarded by federal employees (along the lines of new requirements governing the protection of airports).

The energy companies that own these plants, meanwhile, have lobbied for years to avoid taking safety measures recommended by anti-terrorism experts. The Nuclear Energy Institute has given nearly $500,000 to Republicans (vs. $171,000 to Democrats) in the last five years, and is leading the fight against passage of an effective Nuclear Security Act.

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), would correct many of the safety issues pointed up in the Project on Government Oversight report. It has languished for more than a year, in part due to energy industry opposition, and Congress recessed at Christmas without taking action on the bill.

Is it any wonder that federal regulators charged with helping protect nuclear power plants from terrorists report feelings of malaise?

According to the survey done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's inspector general (a report that's gone largely unmentioned in the press), NRC employees believe that current safety training is "based on outdated scenarios that leave the security of nuclear sites within the United States vulnerable to sabotage." NRC employees worry that the agency is "becoming influenced by private industry and its power to regulate is diminishing." NRC staffers aren't even sure of their exact role anymore, the report says: "Employees tend to be confused regarding overall agency mission."

And, of course, there's the deadening emotional toll suffered by those who work in a regulatory agency that's hopelessly outgunned by the companies it is supposed to regulate. NRC employees are stressed out, bogged down in paperwork, forced to employ useless old software, and short-staffed.

"Many NRC employees perceive a compromise of the "safety culture' as an effect of job stress," the report says.


It's yet another quiet day at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Homer's asleep again, head drooping toward the control panel. Homer's dog, Lenny, Mr. Burns, and Smithers all slumber. Apu and Groundskeeper Willie sleep exhausted inside the air conditioning duct, each with an arm stretched out in the thirsty-man-in-the-desert posture.

Outside, Bart Simpson and Milhouse van Houten climb the side of a cooling tower dressed in a Halloween-costume-store version of terrorist garb. They lower themselves into the dusky interior, where Milhouse spots the Frisbee they've been seeking. It's lodged under the lip of a manhole cover with lettering that says: "REACTOR CORE: PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE."

Bart: [Grabbing a crowbar from the reactor floor.] C'mon. Help me with this thing.

Milhouse: [Panic-stricken as he reluctantly helps Bart hoist the crowbar under the manhole cover, Iwo Jima-style.] Couldn't we just play video games, Bart?

Cut to Bart and Milhouse, shown face on, zooming into space with shocked yet thrilled expressions. Pan from the power plant, which is exploding, to all of Springfield, which is exploding, to the United States, which is exploding, to the planet, which is sprouting mushroom clouds. Bart and Milhouse pass the alien beings Kang and Kodos.

Kang and Kodos: [Nodding heads, stroking chins.] Heh, heh, heh!

Cut back to Bart.

Bart: [Crazed expression and body language mimic the Dr. Strangelove scene in which Slim Pickens rides the Bomb into oblivion. In place of a cowboy hat, Bart waves a Frisbee, his face filling the frame before ultimately disintegrating.] Cowabunga, dude!

About The Author

Matt Smith


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