Imagine, for a moment, that you bring your car in for the annual safety and emissions check required by the state, and a mechanic tells you one of your brake lights is out, your muffler has a hole in it and your emissions are over the pollution limit. Under North Carolina law, you’ve got four months to get them fixed or you can’t (legally) drive your vehicle. You’re also liable for a fine of up to $250, and these days the state has even taken to tracking you down and sending a bill for the penalty even if you don’t get pulled over by a cop.

Now, imagine you’re the operator of a nuclear power plant (say, Progress Energy) that runs a 900-megawatt nuclear reactor within a few miles of a major metropolitan area (its Shearon Harris plant in southern Wake County, for instance). It’s been ruled that you have electrical problems that don’t meet federal regulations and amount to a fire hazard. And imagine that inspectors have known about these problems for 14 years, and twice since 2004 you promised to fix them by 2006. But the time goes by, and you haven’t done it. The penalty is a maximum fine of $130,000 a day per violation and possibly shutting the plant down until the problems are repaired.

Does the state (in this case, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission) start assessing the fine? Does it shut the plant down? No, it … gives the plant another nine years to decide which problems are the most serious and then to fix only them. In the meantime, the NRC is allowing the plant to use alternatives that amount to beefed up sprinklers and people walking around the plant to make sure nothing’s on fire.

The difference between you having your car inspected and a big corporation like Progress Energy is that the nuclear industry all but controls its inspectors (and actually did when the agency was founded). Take, for instance, testimony at last week’s public forum on fire hazards at Shearon Harris. Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service told how, a few years ago, the NRC wanted to change the law that allows alternatives to meeting the safety standards–and the industry’s response.

“The industry threatened what amounted to … civil disobedience–overwhelming the agency with exemption requests,” Gunter said. The NRC backed down.

It’s time for all of us to fight the nuclear industry’s grip on regulators and require that, as long as we’re relying on nuclear power, safety standards not be at the whim of a company’s willingness to pay for repairs. Local governments across the Triangle should follow the lead of Orange County officials who agreed last week to press the NRC to bring Shearon Harris into compliance. And we should be vigilant in seeing that they do. We don’t have any choice about getting our cars inspected, and Progress Energy shouldn’t have any, either.