Federal and state lawmakers are questioning the safety of nuclear power. Will their talk lead to action? Or are their statements, letters, and press releases just efforts to make them look like they\u2019re doing something until the nuclear disaster in Japan fades from the news cycle. Post-Fukushima, there\u2019s only one lawmaker at the federal level, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), who\u2019s actively trying to rein in the country\u2019s push for more, and longer-lived, nukes. Markey introduced a bill, HR 1242, March 29 to slap a moratorium on extending nuclear licenses and approving new nuclear plants. He stands alone on the Hill. Sure, he has vocal supporters, like Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA), and Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). But they\u2019re the kind of acquaintances who say \u201clet\u2019s do lunch\u201d but rarely appear and never pick up the tab. In March and April, Boxer and Feinstein wrote letters to the NRC asking regulators to pretty please consider seismic and other vulnerabilities of nuclear facilities in their licensing processes. Capps held a phone conversation with the NRC chair urging him to halt the Diablo Canyon relicensing program. Neither she nor any other California lawmakers are cosponsors of Markey\u2019s legislation. The commission, like a no-show date, hasn\u2019t responded. It may, just may, get back to Capps in another month, NRC chair Greg Jazcko said May 4. In public, Boxer rails on the nuclear commission during Senate hearings for not having sufficient \u201chumility\u201d in the face of Mother Nature to reconsider its safety processes. Feinstein makes a verbal fuss about shoring up spent fuel pools where high-level radioactive wastes are stored on site at Pacific Gas & Electric\u2019s Diablo Canyon and Southern California Edison\u2019s San Onofre nuclear plants. Capps told Congress that the NRC\u2019s safety and licensing processes should entail catastrophic scenarios. Good points. Where\u2019s the proverbial beef in our nation\u2019s lunches? Instead of humility or a time-lagged response, the NRC answered lawmakers\u2019 concerns by relicensing a problematic nuclear plant--Palo Verde--for another 20 years April 22. Palo Verde is partially owned by Edison and other Southern California utilities (Current, April 29, 2011). For the NRC, the relicensing procedure invokes the old adage about AT&T: \u201cWe don\u2019t care. We don\u2019t have to.\u201d This is the new, moderately progressive Nuclear Regulatory Commission--the one that just came under fire from Republicans this week for closing down the high-level waste project at Yucca Mountain, NV (see story in Beltway section). Both Republicans and Democrats accuse the agency of being insular. Again, the NRC is independent. It doesn\u2019t have to care. No one\u2019s going to lose their job at the commission. Chair Jazcko is about as moderate as they come in that line of work. He\u2019s made it clear in the last couple months that the NRC is not making any substantive changes. NRC said it was launching an investigation that may produce some changes, a few years down the road perhaps, after more nuclear plants are granted license extensions. Politics is politics. Legislators sway with the radioactive winds. As recently as two years ago, Feinstein and Boxer were bending towards fission. They supported new nuclear facilities being built in the context of curbing global warming. Congress this year supports more loan guarantees for new nuclear facilities pushed by the White House. Lawmakers could, if they had the spine for it, resist bending to lobbyists and the news du jour. Federal lawmakers hold the nuclear industry purse strings and set the ground rules for development. Nuclear power plants would not exist without taxpayer and federal political support. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 \u201ccreated a virtual government monopoly of the technology,\u201d according to the NRC\u2019s own historian, J. Samuel Walker. After the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1954, the Atomic Energy Act re-branded nuclear as a peaceful source of electricity. It allowed private companies to take on the peaceful power mantle. Regulation was awarded to the new Atomic Energy Commission. At the time, according to Walker, \u201cIt became apparent how the AEC\u2019s judgment on safety issues could be influenced by its ambition to promote the private development of nuclear power.\u201d The AEC turned into the NRC in 1974 when public concerns over radiation and thermal pollution heightened. President Nixon morphed the agency \u201cpresumably to speed up licensing,\u201d according to Walker. But what if something does go wrong with a reactor, threatening public health and safety? The public is on its own and picks up most of that lonely lunch tab. Industry got a cushion in 1957 with the Price-Anderson Act. The legislation limits industry liability to $12.6 billion (as of this year) in cases like the Fukushima disaster. Thus, while utilities get the benefit of relative low-cost power, they\u2019re relieved of the liability if there\u2019s a big accident. The feds are only one set of players. There\u2019s the state, which has the means to make or break nuke plant operations. Many state legislators have expressed concerns about the risks but only one, Senator Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), a geologist, is trying to halt relicensing. He\u2019s raising serious and insightful questions about the safety of Diablo Canyon. He authored legislation enacted in 2008 that required additional seismic studies of the PG&E plant and led to the discovery of the previously unknown Shoreline fault a kilometer from the reactors. Will state lawmakers close the safety gap and cut nuclear plants\u2019 financial lifelines? Will they \u201cman up?\u201d State lawmakers could limit the California Public Utilities Commission\u2019s ratemaking authority. Recent examples are bills attempting to mandate that regulators deny recovery of costs incurred from utility natural gas pipeline accidents if found to be caused by negligence. However, it\u2019s been more than 10 years since state lawmakers took significant action on the ratemaking front. During the 2000-01 energy crisis politicians froze electricity rates, which soared after wholesale energy prices dramatically increased during the deregulation debacle. Given term limitations, campaign financing needs, and the shrunken handful of lawmakers who understand the energy industry, meaningful legislation is unlikely. That could change if Gov. Jerry Brown manned up. Brown helped create the California Energy Commission. At the time, its underlying raison d\u2019être was to prohibit nuclear plants. Brown could use his bully pulpit to end license extension efforts. In 1976, California enacted a law forbidding new nuclear plants until a long-term high-level radioactive waste dump is opened. Thirty five years later, Brown\u2019s saying little about nuclear power. Forget politicians. The CPUC is where the real action is. We have a new crop of commissioners. They will decide whether to allow PG&E and Edison to recover in rates the costs of relicensing, plant seismic studies, and any nuke facility retrofits and upgrades. A settlement to allow PG&E to recoup the cost of its license extension application at the NRC was yanked from the CPUC calendar in mid-March after the Fukushima disaster. Under the deal--agreed to by the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, The Utility Reform Network, and PG&E--up to $80 million of the utility\u2019s projected $85 million in spending would be deemed \u201creasonable\u201d--but costs that exceed that level would be subject to a review (Current, March 18, 2011). Edison plans to spend up to $64 million on seismic studies for San Onofre. That\u2019s before the cost of paperwork to send a 20-year license extension plan to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If and when a hearing on the PG&E settlement to allow $80-$85 million in relicensing cost recovery is rescheduled, new CPUC members likely will ask a lot of hard questions. With their power to deny rate recovery for relicensing actions, they hold the state\u2019s nuclear future and its risk in their votes.