Nuclear, Dude

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

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.

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