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Government shutdown forces 90 percent staff cut at nuclear regulator. Don't panic.

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Nuclear Regulatory Commission/AP/File

(Read caption) Allison Macfarlane, second from right, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, gets a tour of the now-closed San Onofre Nuclear Power Station in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., in January. The NRC announced Wednesday it would begin implementing its government shutdown plan.

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Having exhausted carryover funds that kept it open during the government shutdown, the federal agency responsible for regulating the nation’s 100 commercial nuclear reactors began furloughing more than 90 percent of its staff Thursday.

There's no short-term threat to public safety, officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other analysts said. On-site inspectors will remain on the job and employees will be called out of furlough in the case of an emergency.

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But non-emergency reactor licensing, emergency preparedness exercises, and inspection of nuclear materials are among the day-to-day operations put on hold amid the lapse in appropriations. The cutback significantly crimps the agency's ability to lend oversight and planning for a nuclear industry already troubled by cheap energy competitors and waning electricity demand.

"We are mindful of the impact the shutdown will have on the public, our licensees, our staff and contractors and others who count on us," NRC Chairman  Allison Macfarlane wrote in a post announcing the furloughs on the agency's website Wednesday. 

The cuts leave about 300 of the agency’s 3,900 employees, roughly half of whom are the on-site inspectors that oversee operations at nuclear reactors. The other half make up emergency personnel. The presidentially-appointed chairman, NRC commissioners, and inspector general are also exempted from the furloughs.

"The government shutdown is not good for the NRC," Dale Klein, a former NRC chair and now associate vice chancellor for research at The University of Texas System, wrote in an e-mail. "[B]ut I expect the NRC to maintain critical staff positions and they would immediately call back most workers if there was a serious event."

Private industry is also equipped to respond to any kind of emergency situation, said Scott Peterson, senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry advocacy group.

"From a safety, security, and operational oversight perspective, there will be no change at all," Mr. Peterson said.

The NRC was among other energy agencies – including the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) – that were operating at full capacity during the shutdown by using carryover funds. DOE and FERC continue to use those funds, but officials have said they will have to implement furloughs eventually.