By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Federal safety inspectors at Oconee Nuclear Station will remain on the job, despite the Thursday shutdown of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
After the federal government closed Oct. 1, the NRC operated using money left over from the fiscal 2013 budget, but that money ran out Wednesday. NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane said starting Thursday, the agency would no longer do non-emergency reactor licensing, license renewal amendments, emergency preparedness exercises, reviews of design certifications or regulatory guidance.
"Let me stress, however, that all of our resident inspectors will remain on the job and any immediate safety or security matters will be handled with dispatch," Macfarlane wrote in a message to NRC employees and the public. "We can - and will, without hesitation - bring employees out of furlough to respond to an emergency. We must, in this regard, err on the side of safety and security."
The agency employs about 150 resident inspectors - at least two at every nuclear power plant - who monitor daily operations and are available around the clock for inspections. They give regulators first-hand assessments of plant conditions and performance.
Duke Energy's Oconee Nuclear Station, which has three pressurized water reactors, has three NRC resident inspectors.
The NRC furloughed about 3,600 of its 3,900 employees, according to a statement from Mark Satorius, executive director for operations. In addition to the 150 resident inspectors still working, the agency is keeping about 150 staffers to respond to emergency situations. The chairman, the NRC commissioners and the inspector general are exempt from the furlough as presidential appointees.
Nuclear industry watchdogs say the shutdown will hinder the agency's ability to respond to an emergency.
"You can reduce operations to a skeleton crew and as long as there is no crisis, maybe you'll get by unscathed," said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist with the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But if there is an emergency, the NRC will have to reconstitute the people it needs, which will lead to a delay."
The NRC also said the shutdown will hinder transparency because new documents and reports will not be posted for public viewing at the web site until it reopens.
"That's a concern because timely and accurate and complete public information about nuclear facilities is something that the American people really deserve to have," Lyman said.