In 2007, then-candidate Barack Obama sat down for an interview with the editorial board of the Keene Sentinel, a newspaper in a New Hampshire town 15 miles away from a controversial nuclear power plant across the border in Vermont. Asked about his views on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency in charge of overseeing nuclear power plants, Obama responded by calling the NRC a “moribund” agency. “It’s become captive of the industries that it regulates, and I think that’s a problem,” he said.
Despite those stark comments, there’s no evidence that President Obama has fundamentally changed the workings of the NRC — which has for years been criticized as too close to industry. Earlier this year, for example, three states sued the NRC after it extended from 30 to 60 years the amount of time that nuclear waste can be stored on-site at power plants.
This is no academic issue. A new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found 14 “near misses” at U.S. power plants last year, some of them due to oversight failures. Meanwhile, at least one former top NRC official is now working for the nuclear power industry and appearing on television on behalf of the pro-nuclear lobby.
To understand how the NRC came to be so cozy with the industry it is supposed to regulate and what the crisis in Japan means for the agency’s future, I spoke with Robert Duffy, a professor of political science at Colorado State University and author of the 1997 book, “Nuclear Politics in America.” The following has been edited for length and clarity.
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