Going nuclear

The industry is gearing up to build its first new plants in decades. 
But are we comfortable with that?  Join Fortune's David Whitford on a 
road trip into America's nuclear future.

FORTUNE Magazine

By David Whitford, Fortune editor-at-large
July 23 2007

(Fortune Magazine) -- "We were at heightened security - we were at 
red," recalls Al Griffith, spokesman for the utility that owns the 
Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire.

I'm standing with Griffith on a lawn of plastic grass (real stuff 
doesn't grow here?) inside the "owner-controlled area" at Seabrook, 
the outermost of three security zones.  It's a glorious late-spring 
afternoon.  Blue sky, scudding clouds, wind whipping across the tidal 
flats.  Griffith is wearing wrap-around Nike sunglasses and a white 
polo shirt featuring Seabrook's flying-duck logo.  Nice tan on this 
guy.  I follow his gaze past coiled strands of concertina wire, 
beyond a black-windowed BRE (bullet-resistant enclosure) on stilts, 
to the salt marsh, which serves as a natural buffer between the 
reactor complex and the New Hampshire resort town of Hampton Beach.

It was a Friday night, Griffith continues: March 21, 2003.  One day 
after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  The whole country was on red alert. 
In Seabrook fog lay heavy on the marsh.  Just before 9 P.M., 
something out there, something deep in the darkness, triggered the 
"perimeter intruder detection system."  At nearly the same moment, on 
the opposite side of the 900-acre complex, an unfamiliar vehicle 
approached a checkpoint.  When armed guards waved the vehicle down, 
the driver suddenly reversed direction.  Plant security, confronting 
what it now believed to be a simultaneous incursion by two 
unidentified intruders, tripped the alarm and declared a "security 
event."  Local police sealed the exits.  The armed heavies from the 
Seacoast Emergency Response Team arrived in force.  "It was 
craziness," says Griffith, who was out drinking with friends that 
night when his pager went off.  "Total lockdown."  Griffith, besieged 
by media calls, didn't sleep for three days.

Four years later the identity of the marsh intruder remains a 
mystery, although authorities have narrowed the list of suspects. It 
was a "heron or turkey or some damn thing," says Griffith. And the 
occupants of the suspicious vehicle? Two skittish underage kids on a 
beer run who somehow missed the turnoff to DeMoulas Market Basket, 
then panicked and fled.

Listening to Griffith's story, I'm not sure whether I should feel 
reassured or alarmed. What I do know is that 54 years after President 
Eisenhower envisioned a future in which the awesome power of the atom 
would "serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind," a lot of us 
are still spooked. Griffith's own mother is so unnerved by what her 
son does for a living that she refuses to set foot inside the plant, 
which, by the way, has a visitor center, a nature trail, and a museum 
frequented by schoolchildren.

"We have found in demographic studies that particularly older 
Americans - they associate nuclear, the 'N word,' with explosion, 
with bombs, with war," says Griffith.  "It's a difficult branding 
issue."  The July 16 earthquake in Japan, which caused a fire at the 
largest nuclear-power complex in the world, tipped over barrels of 
contaminated material, and spilled hundreds of gallons of low-level 
radioactive water into the sea, reminded us that it's not just 
branding - the product has flaws.

Factor in all that, plus the daunting economics of nuclear power and 
the still-unsolved puzzle of how to safely dispose of nuclear waste, 
and you begin to understand why it's been more than three decades 
since the last successful attempt to license and build a nuclear 
power plant in the U.S. got underway.

It may surprise you to know that nuclear power has stayed with us all 
these years, stubbornly clinging to about a 20% share of U.S. 
electricity generation - about the same as natural gas but lagging 
far behind coal at 50%. (Globally, nukes have a 16% market share.) 
And while no new plants have come online since 1996 (construction 
began on that one in 1973), suddenly we're hearing lots of talk about 
a nuclear revival - or "renaissance," as the boosters call it.  In 
June, Dale Klein, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission 
(NRC), told a fired-up gathering of industry leaders in Atlanta that 
he's expecting applications for 27 new reactors over the next two 
years.  "There is no serious opposition," says Tony Earley, CEO of 
Detroit's DTE Energy (Charts, Fortune 500), which hopes to file at 
least one of those applications. "This train is moving."

A lot of the push is coming from the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which 
is stuffed with generous subsidies for nuclear power and other 
alternatives to fossil fuels.  Among them: billions of dollars in tax 
credits, loan guarantees, and insurance to cover licensing delays. 
Big corporations know which way the political wind is blowing.  Texas 
power utility TXU (Charts, Fortune 500) won support from 
environmentalists for a $32 billion buyout deal in February in part 
by scrapping plans to build a fleet of coal-fired generating plants 
and pledging instead to build as many as five jumbo nuclear plants. 
GE (Charts, Fortune 500) and Hitachi, meanwhile, have created a 
multibillion-dollar partnership to build reactors, betting not only 
on power-hungry Asia but also on new thinking in the U.S.  "It's hard 
to believe simultaneously in energy security and reduction of 
greenhouse gas emissions without believing in nuclear power," GE CEO 
Jeff Immelt told reporters in July.  "It's just intellectually 

Probably the earliest a new reactor could come online in the U.S. is 
2015, and even that seems optimistic. There is plenty of opposition, 
despite what Earley says. And anything could happen over the next 
decade or so to knock the train off its track. A terrorist attack on 
a nuclear facility anywhere in the world would halt all progress 
overnight. So would another Chernobyl. But right now the momentum is 
swinging nuclear's way. Among the many green-light factors: rising 
natural-gas prices; soaring electricity demand; the looming prospect 
of a carbon tax; a new, streamlined regulatory process; and growing 
acceptance by environmentalists that nuclear energy, which emits no 
greenhouse gases, could have a vital role in saving the planet.

This developing story has continental sweep, a huge cast of 
characters, multiple moving parts.  So much of what we think we know 
we haven't reexamined in years. If we're going to try to reconcile 
nuclear power's cloudy past with the industry's bright vision of the 
future, we need to see for ourselves.  Road trip, anyone?

Pausing now at a stoplight on Highway 1 as I'm leaving the Seabrook 
plant, I consult the GPS, turn the wheel of my little SUV toward the 
setting sun, and go.  Already I have lots of questions. Who has the 
skill and know-how to build all those new plants?  Where will we put 
them? How are we going to pay for them? Is the technology really 
safe? What about the waste?  I'm just getting started.  Two weeks, I 
figure this'll take. Seven thousand zigzaggy miles through America's 
nuclear past, present, and future. The most important lesson I will 
learn: Things are not always as we remember them.
How bad was Three Mile Island?

I'm on the river road south of Middletown, Pa., when I come upon a 
handsome blue historical marker commemorating "the nation's worst 
commercial nuclear accident." (You haven't lived until you've beheld 
a roadside monument to an event that occurred during your lifetime.) 
Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station is right there across 
the road, the iconic towers rising from a fern-shaped island in the 
Susquehanna River. Reminds me of the first time I saw the Eiffel 
Tower. Similar hyperboloid sweep, but that's not what's so striking. 
It's the weirdness - the sudden, disorienting displacement of a 
familiar mental image, derived from 1,000 pictures, by the thing 

Those towers carry a lot of symbolic weight, almost none of it 
appropriate.  There's nothing specifically nuclear about them, for 
one thing. They're just cooling towers.  A lot of coal-fired 
electricity plants use the same technology.  That engine roar coming 
from the towers that sounds like a giant waterfall?  That's all it 
is, water falling: 200,000 gallons per minute at about 110 degrees 
Fahrenheit, but not radioactive. And that's just water vapor coming 
out of the tops, of course, not poisonous smoke.

What's more, the towers played no part in the accident, even if they 
did wind up on the cover of Time. That whole drama began and ended 
several hundred feet away inside the Unit 2 containment building - 
starting before dawn on March 28, 1979, and unfolding over several 
days - and yes, it was undeniably scary and bad.  There was an 
explosion inside the building, a partial meltdown of the reactor 
core, purposeful venting of radioactive gases, and a voluntary 
evacuation covering five square miles. The PR was inept, inflaming 
public fears.  (Strange but true: The China Syndrome was playing in 
first-run theaters that week.  As the tension builds, a nuclear 
engineer tells Jane Fonda that a meltdown could render an area "the 
size of Pennsylvania" uninhabitable.)

The cleanup took 14 years and cost $1 billion. Unit 1, while 
undamaged, did not reopen until 1986.  Unit 2 is a sarcophagus, still 
highly radioactive, sealed tight until somebody figures out what to 
do about the remnants of hot fuel scattered around the basement of 
the containment building.

But guess what?  No one died at Three Mile Island.  No one even got 
hurt.  Hard evidence simply does not exist that any living thing, 
animal or vegetable, was significantly harmed by the small amount of 
radiation released during the accident.  Even in the most extreme 
cases, the exposure was less than anyone living in the area receives 
from natural sources. Eric Epstein, head of the citizen's group Three 
Mile Island Alert, whom I met for lunch at Kuppy's Diner in nearby 
Middletown, is certainly no fan of nuclear power, which he describes 
as a "very expensive economic adventure" and an "economic 
boondoggle." "They're still married to hubris," Epstein rails. "They 
can't get past their own arrogance." So where does Epstein live? 
Twelve miles from the plant. "I like the area," he says, shrugging 
his shoulders. "I encourage people to move here."

The other thing you can't pin on Three Mile Island is the blame (or 
credit, depending on your point of view) for halting the expansion of 
nuclear power in the U.S.  In 1974, President Nixon predicted we'd 
have 1,000 commercial nuclear reactors operating by the end of the 
century.  Not even close.  No more than 250 were ever ordered, only 
170 filed for permits, just 130 opened, and 104 remain.  What 
happened?  Construction delays, cost overruns, high interest rates, 
systemic safety issues, a whole lot of no-nukes protesters, and a 
surprising dropoff in electricity demand, all of which predate 1979. 
Three Mile Island didn't kill the nuclear dream.  It was just another 
nail in the coffin.

Can the industry be trusted?

On to Washington.  David Lochbaum is a respected critic.  He was 
smitten at an early age by the magic of the atom.  He has thrilling 
childhood memories of visiting the world's first nuclear aircraft 
carrier, the USS Enterprise, in the shipyard at Newport News, Va., 
and hearing about all the cool peacetime projects that his dad was 
working on at Westinghouse, like plutonium-powered artificial hearts 
and floating nuclear power plants.  None of those projects came to 
fruition, but no matter.  "It seemed nuclear had a lot of promise," 
says Lochbaum. "I wanted to follow that up."

Trained as a nuclear engineer, Lochbaum spent 17 years working in 
nuclear power plants across the South.  What finally ruined it for 
him, he says, was the industry's lackadaisical attitude toward 
safety. When his bosses didn't respond to his concerns, he went to 
the NRC.  When the NRC failed to act, he took the issue to Congress 
as a whistleblower, and in 1996 he crossed over to the other side, 
becoming director of the Nuclear Safety Project with the Union of 
Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington, D.C. I met him in his 
cramped office on H Street, working well past dark one Thursday 
evening.  Behind his desk is an old wall map labeled "Nuclear Power 
Reactor Sites in the United States - March 1979."  Still largely 
accurate, I can't help but notice.

Lochbaum says he'd never have taken this job if UCS were an 
abolitionist outfit, but unlike Greenpeace, for instance, UCS is not 
opposed to the idea of nuclear power.  Its concerns are more 
practical: that we'll ask too much of nuclear and it will fail to 
deliver for any number of reasons - political protests, disappointing 
technology, terrorism. UCS's bottom line: We should focus society's 
resources on renewables, conservation, and efficiency, not nuclear.

Especially, Lochbaum would argue, given the nuclear industry's 
propensity to screw up. Lochbaum said something to a reporter in June 
2001 that he thinks "in hindsight was probably bad judgment." But it 
was clearly revealing.  The question had to do with plant security - 
how a terrorist might cause trouble.  "Buy a comfortable chair," 
Lochbaum riffed.  "Buy a big-screen TV.  Buy plenty of snacks and 
beverages.  Sit back and watch sports while the Nuclear Regulatory 
Commission and the nuclear industry undermine safety until they cause 
an accident."  In other words, Lochbaum says, "it's not the 
antinukes, it's not an overzealous regulator that's been the 
industry's worst nightmare - it's themselves."  While he believes 
most plants are run "very well" (Lochbaum's favorite nuclear operator 
is Dominion (Charts, Fortune 500), with two plants in Virginia and 
one each in Connecticut and Wisconsin), he sees a "widening gap 
between the haves and have-nots."  His suggestion: more regulation 
and more enforcement.
Can we build them fast enough?

Next day, right around the corner at the Nuclear Energy Institute, I 
ask the industry's chief lobbyist, Alex Flint, what he thinks of 
Lochbaum's prescription.  Good for the industry?  Flint, who wears an 
impressive power suit and a bright-yellow tie, peers at me through 
thin-rimmed glasses for several long seconds.  "My guys have over 
$100 billion worth of capital tied up in nuclear plants," he says 
finally. "They're concerned about the vagaries of overzealous 
regulators."  He goes on: "We're going to submit combined operating 
and licensing applications at the end of this year for a number of 
plants.  We estimate it'll take 42 months to get through the 
licensing process.  We estimate it'll take us 40 months after we get 
the license to bring a plant online and actually start getting 
revenue."  The only way that works, he says, is with a "broad base of 
support for nuclear power where we don't care who is in office one 
year or any other year.  The industry has a time line that's longer 
than most politicians' time lines."

In fact, that consensus may already exist, thanks to the complex 
politics of global warming.  Flint doesn't line up with 
environmentalists on every issue, but on climate change he's a true 
believer.  ("I won't let my wife buy a beach house because I don't 
believe the water level will stay where it is until I get the 
mortgage paid off. That's my personal view.")  So if Democrats like 
Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton want to talk about nuclear power as 
a solution to global warming, Flint is happy to have that 

Bottom line: Flint, who was majority staff director for the Senate 
Energy and Natural Resources Committee when the Republicans were in 
control, says the last time he tried to count the hard-core 
antinukers in Congress, "I couldn't get to 20."  Even Al Gore is 
wavering.  Gore pointedly ignored nuclear power when he addressed 
ways to reduce carbon emissions in his film, An Inconvenient Truth, 
but in March he told a House committee hearing, "I'm not an 
absolutist in being opposed to nuclear. I think it's likely to play 
some role."

Flint knows that nuclear power all by itself can't solve the climate 
crisis. The industry will be hard-pressed to simply preserve its 
global market share as electricity production booms over the next 
half-century, much less steal share from fossil fuels. In the U.S. 
alone, according to a new study by the Council on Foreign Relations, 
given the age of the existing nuclear fleet, "the replacement rate 
would be on the order of one new reactor every four to five months 
over the next 40 years."  This in an industry that's been dormant for 
30 years, at a time when commodity prices for steel and concrete are 
soaring, and when qualified welders are almost as hard to find as 
nuclear engineers.

"I get very frustrated with people who say it takes too many nuclear 
plants to solve our climate problems," says Flint.  "It takes a lot 
fewer nuclear plants than it does other technologies."  Any way you 
look at it, he says, the investment required to meet the projected 
growth in demand for electricity in the U.S. is on the order of $750 
billion to $1 trillion.  "So the greatest issue for me is, How is 
that investment going to be made? Is it going to be made in coal, 
gas, nuclear, wind, solar?  Yes, it takes a lot of nuclear power 
plants, but it takes a lot of anything."

What's the worst that could happen?

Turns out we had a near miss not long ago in the Midwest. I leave 
D.C., heading west and north, up through West Virginia and into 
western Pennsylvania, over the spine of the Appalachians. 
GREEN ENERGY. And here and there, up on the ridgelines, stand small 
clusters of wind turbines, like scouts in an advancing army. Next day 
I arrive in Oak Harbor, Ohio, then head for the shoreline of Lake 
Erie.  At the turnoff to Turtle Creek Marina I pull over by the side 
of the road and just sit for a while, staring at the cooling tower 
that looms above the Happy Hooker bait shop.

Unless you live around here, or in Toledo, 30 miles west, or possibly 
in Cleveland or Detroit, both less than 90 miles away, the name 
Davis-Besse may not mean anything to you.  That's just lucky. During 
a refueling outage at Davis-Besse in 2002, employees discovered a 
"large cavity" about the size of a football in the head of the 
pressurized vessel that houses the reactor core.  The cause of the 
cavity was later traced to leaks in nozzles that penetrate the 
interior of the vessel head.  The water in the nozzles was slightly 
acidic. When it evaporated, it left behind boric acid, which over 
time ate through the 6 1/2-inch-thick carbon-steel head all the way 
down to 1/4-inch-thick stainless-steel cladding. As the hole widened, 
the internal pressure on the cladding intensified.

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Lab have since determined that if 
the plant had continued operating, the cladding ultimately would have 
burst. (Plant owner FirstEnergy (Charts, Fortune 500) says it would 
have found the leak in time to take "appropriate steps.") Had the 
cladding burst, the core would probably have suffered a meltdown, 
releasing about the same amount of radioactivity as at Three Mile 
Island - only this time it would not have been contained. "They came 
very close to an accident that would have been much worse than Three 
Mile Island and not as bad as Chernobyl," says Lochbaum. "You don't 
ever want to be in a place where those are your bookends."

Both the leakage and its corrosive effects were known issues. The 
industry committed in 1989 to investigate such leaks. Yet somehow 
Davis-Besse escaped detection until it was almost too late. What's 
more, in April 2000 an NRC inspector was handed a truly ugly 
photograph of the Davis-Besse reactor vessel head covered in acidic 
crud. No one saw it again until after the accident. The episode cost 
the utility company around $600 million.

Can the no-nukes movement regroup?

Sunday afternoon in Bexley, Ohio, east of Columbus.  I'm standing on 
a quiet, tree-canopied street at the top of Harvey Wasserman's 
driveway, waiting for him to come outside, meanwhile reading the 
bumper stickers on his cars: BUSH LIED, PEOPLE DIED; CELEBRATE 
decades ago Wasserman was a leader in the Clamshell Alliance, the 
grassroots movement that delayed the opening of the Unit 1 Seabrook 
nuclear reactor for many years while making sure Unit 2 was never 
completed. Today, it happens, is the 30th anniversary of a landmark 
Clamshell victory - the release of 550 demonstrators who had spent 
two weeks locked up in New Hampshire armories. It was a huge win for 
the burgeoning movement. Wasserman was at Seabrook that day, handling 
communications with the press.  Now he's a college professor, an 
author, a father of five daughters, and a Volvo driver living in the 
suburbs, but the fire still burns.

"I was present at the creation of the antinuclear movement," 
Wasserman tells me by way of introduction, once we're settled at a 
picnic table.  "I actually coined the phrase 'No nukes.'  It came 
through my typewriter." His opposition to nukes has not wavered since 
he was living on a Massachusetts commune in 1973 ("All those stories 
you've heard about hippie farms are true"), helping lead his first 
successful protest.  "Not safe," he says now, "not economical, not 
green, not a solution to global warming." He gleefully searches for 
another phrase.  "We have been trying for 30 years to drive a stake 
through the heart of this industry, but it doesn't seem to have one!"

In his book Solartopia!, Wasserman envisions a clean-energy future in 
which all our energy needs are satisfied by solar, wind, hydro, and 
biofuels. "If we put our minds to it, we could have all of that 
before they bring the next nuke online," he says. "The finances are 
going in the opposite direction of the nuclear power industry. Where 
do you find on Wall Street people lining up to invest in nuclear 
plants? No one can simultaneously argue for a free-market economy and 
for nuclear power. You can't! You cannot do nuclear power without 
massive federal subsidies. It's just not going to happen."

Before I leave, Wasserman has one more point to make: "I do intend to 
make it as difficult for them as possible.  I will tell you that the 
antinuclear network is very much intact.  It's a geezer battalion - 
I'm 61." He is silent for a moment, remembering. "In '77, I was 31. 
It was just so much fun. Some people are actually looking forward to 
doing it again.  Those of us who can still walk will be back in 
droves, with our kids. This is not going to be a walk in the park for 
these guys."

Who will build them if they come?

Follow the Ohio River in the direction the current flows, all the way 
to the toe of Indiana, through Evansville and into tiny Mount Vernon, 
past the Civil War statue on the village square (a Union soldier; 
across the river he'd be a Reb) and out the other side of town, and 
you come to BWXT's Mount Vernon facility, the only factory in America 
that can still build large-scale nuclear components.

GE and Westinghouse used to do a lot of that kind of work too, 
building complex reactor vessels from massive forgings born in the 
steel mills of eastern Pennsylvania and shipping them worldwide. 
Both have since shed their nuclear manufacturing divisions and today 
focus on design.  That leaves BWXT, and in time it will have to go to 
Japan Steel Works for its forgings.

When the bottom fell out of the market in 1978, the Mount Vernon 
plant went from employing 1,400 people to a ghost factory, ultimately 
allowing its coveted "N" security stamp - required for nuclear work - 
to expire. It got the stamp back a year ago, and already things are 
picking up. Right now Mount Vernon is working on two 60-ton 
replacement reactor heads for PG&E's Diablo Canyon facility in 
California. Plant manager Michael Keene and his boss Rod Woolsey, VP 
of the nuclear division, take me on a tightlipped tour of the factory 
floor, refusing to say much about the gleaming steel reactor vessels 
- some as big as circus elephants, others more like whales - I 
observe along the way.  "Government" is all I can get out of them. 
Workers circulate on bicycles.  No hardhats, which seems odd.  Until 
I grasp that if anything in this pantheon topples, it will flatten my 
whole body, not just my head.

Back in D.C., BWXT lobbyists are working hard to juice the order 
flow, angling for legislation that would open up foreign markets to 
U.S. manufacturers and pushing for someone to stand up on the 
national stage and articulate a thrilling goal  - say, 30 new nuclear 
plants by 2030.  Pointing out that much of the domestic nuclear 
industry is down to at most a single supplier for every major type of 
component, they're also asking for tax credits to train new workers 
and tax incentives on capital improvements. "If we can't do this type 
of blue-collar work," BWXT's chief lobbyist, Craig Hansen, told me, 
"we might as well throw our hands up and say we are no longer a 
manufacturing country."  His pointed warning: "We may exchange one 
form of energy dependence for another form of energy dependence."

What will happen in an emergency?

I'm following another river road, this one tracking the Mississippi 
near Hahnville, La., 20 miles west of New Orleans in what used to be 
rice and sugarcane country.  Now it's an industrial zone.  There's a 
big Union Carbide chemical plant in Hahnville, and right next door, a 
nuclear plant, Entergy's Waterford 3 reactor, and outside Waterford 
3, a hair-raising public-information billboard, headlined WHAT WILL 

"If there is a problem, state and parish officials will decide how 
severe it is. Most problems will not affect you. If the experts 
decide there is a serious emergency, however, you may have to protect 
yourself. Stay as calm as you can. You will have some time to take 
the needed steps. Remember that nuclear plants do not explode.

"Do not use your telephone. Do not call or go to your children's 
school. Cover your nose and mouth with a handkerchief or other cloth. 
Close the windows and doors if you are in a building or car.

"What if you are told to SHELTER IN PLACE? Go inside your house or 
some other building. Stay inside until your radio or TV says you can 
leave safely. Keep your pets inside.

"What if you are told to evacuate? Get your family together and 
prepare to leave. Pack only what you will need most."

Reading that, my heart goes out to Ann Jupiter, who has lived in the 
shadow of Waterford 3 since it was built in 1985. "It's always 
scary," she told me when I stopped to visit. "When it ain't doing 
nothing, it's scary."
What's it really like inside a nuclear power plant?

More than halfway through my journey now, crossing Texas today from 
Bay City on the gulf to the New Mexico border, I'm thinking about all 
the nuclear plants I've seen so far - a total of 14 reactors in nine 
states - and what I've learned.

I've learned that nuclear power is concentrated along the Eastern 
Seaboard but that Illinois has more nuclear plants (11) and generates 
more nuclear power (nearly 95 million megawatt-hours) than any other 

I've learned that nuclear plants are almost always off someplace by 
themselves, which makes sense. People don't want to live next to one 
if they can help it. Animals don't care, though. In fact, animals 
find a lot to like wherever there's a nuclear plant, starting with 
the absence of human beings. Plus nuclear plants don't make a lot of 
noise. They don't poison the air with dirty smokestacks, the way coal 
plants do. They don't kill birds, the way wind turbines sometimes do. 
No wonder so many nuclear plants are surrounded by nature preserves.

I've learned that the inside of a nuclear plant is all cramped 
corridors and shiny floors and exposed pipes. That you have to wear 
earplugs in the turbine room and a hardhat almost everywhere, but 
that the earplugs go in your pocket and the hardhat comes off when 
you and your escort knock on the control room door and ask permission 
to enter. Nothing dangling - that's the rule in the control room - 
and nothing that might fall off our head and trip a switch that's 
better left untripped.

I've learned about the etymology of SCRAM, an acronym reportedly 
coined by Enrico Fermi, who presided over the world's first nuclear 
chain reaction at the University of Chicago on Dec. 2, 1942.  Fermi 
stationed a colleague, Norman Hillberry, next to the rope used to 
raise and lower the control rods, with an ax.  Hillberry's job, if 
called upon, was to chop the rope with a single swing, immediately 
halting the reaction.  Hillberry's title, the story goes, was Safety 
Control Rod Ax Man.  I didn't see any axmen in the control rooms I 
visited, but I saw plenty of red SCRAM switches - same thing. 
Sometimes they're labeled "RX Trip." Give one a 45-degree clockwise 
yank, and the control rods plunge into the core and the reactor shuts 
down in seconds.

I've learned that since Three Mile Island, every nuclear plant in 
America has at least two inspectors from the NRC onsite at all times. 
They have the best passes available, offering free run of the plant, 
anytime, anywhere.  And since Three Mile Island, I've also learned, 
every control room operator spends a week in training and testing at 
regular intervals in a customized simulator room, identical in every 
detail to the control room where the operator works.

I've learned that a nuclear plant is like a refrigerator - it hums 
along pretty well all by itself, with minimal human intervention, 
except when you have to shut it down. Then you have a lot of work to 
do.  I've learned that spent fuel rods are stored in 40 feet of 
water; that while a fuel-rod pool room is technically an RCA 
(radiation-controlled area), you can walk right up to the edge of the 
pool and look down in there and gaze upon the fuel rods in their 
honeycomb tombs, hot and glowing from the radiation still in them, 
and not worry about getting sick.  But if you were to tumble into the 
pool and dive down to the bottom and touch one, you'd never make it 
back to the surface.

Will we have to rely on a foreign source of fuel?

I arrive around lunchtime in tiny Eunice, N.M.?  Pretty bleak, this 
place, at least to my Eastern eyes: all pump jacks and natural-gas 
lines, otherwise not so much as a bump on the landscape. "It's good 
when it's good" is how Brenda Brooks from nearby Hobbs assesses the 
local economy, "and it's really bad when it's really bad." Which 
helps explain Brooks' new job.  She's director of communications and 
community affairs for Urenco, a European consortium that's building 
the first advanced fuel-enrichment plant in the U.S., just 4 1/2 
miles east of Eunice.  The hope in the U.S. is that the new factory 
will help lessen our reliance on foreign sources of enriched uranium, 
much of which now comes from Russia.  The hope in Eunice is that it 
will bring a measure of economic stability to the region, once it's 
up and running in 2009 and employing 300 people.  Already, says 
Brooks, there are hundreds of construction workers on site, most of 
them living in overstuffed trailer parks in Eunice and Hobbs. 
Community resistance was minimal, but Urenco was taking no chances. 
The company flew community leaders to the Netherlands to see an 
identical plant that has been operating safely for years. "There's a 
day care across the street, and there's nobody running around with 
four legs and horns growing out of their forehead," says Brooks. 
"It's all cool."

Where will we store the waste?

The Yucca Mountain tour starts here in Las Vegas, at the U.S. 
Department of Energy's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste 
Management.  "There is a billion or two dollars' worth of science 
studies, but there's no nuclear waste out there," says Allen Benson, 
publicity director.  Benson has been here 11 years, so he has given 
this rap a few times before. Says there's room at Yucca Mountain for 
"70,000 metric tons" of nuclear waste. (Which tells you something 
right away. It tells you that the origins of this hoary federal 
program date all the way back to that hopeful period when it seemed 
possible that Americans might be persuaded to convert to metric 
weights and measures.  He means 77,000 regular tons.)  "Whatever 
happens with nuclear power, nuclear renaissance, what have you," says 
Benson, "we currently have about 55,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel 
already, which something has to be done with." Absolute best-case 
scenario: Waste starts arriving in 2017.  "That means everything 
occurs as we need, we get the appropriations we need - but it does 
not account for litigation.  There will be litigation.  We have no 
illusions about that." Nye County, the vast chunk of desert 
mountainscape that encompasses not only Yucca Mountain but also a 
former nuclear bomb test site, is not the issue.  Nye County has been 
cashing Energy Department tax-equivalency checks for years - in 2007 
it got $11.25 million, or about one-third of its operating budget. 
But nine other counties are contiguous to Nye including Las Vegas 
County - and the law says they all get their say.  Already the NRC 
has built a dedicated facility in Las Vegas, out near the airport, 
just to host the hearings. Those get underway late next year.

The costs so far are staggering: About $9 billion since the inception 
of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1983. But that's just the 
beginning. What Benson calls the "total system life-cycle cost" - 
covering final regulatory approval, complete construction, the 
transport of radioactive waste to the site, and the storing of said 
waste in such a way that all interested parties are satisfied that it 
won't be disturbed for at least 10,000 years - that total stands at 
$58.5 billion. "We're working on a revised total-cost analysis," says 
Benson. "It will be higher." Yucca was supposed to begin receiving 
waste in 1998. When that didn't happen, the utilities were forced to 
make other plans. Existing spent fuel pools, like the ones I've seen, 
are at about 80% of capacity and projected to reach 100% by 2015. The 
next option is what's known as dry cask storage - basically, burying 
the spent fuel rods onsite. And Plan B, if Yucca Mountain never gets 
approval to begin receiving waste? There is no Plan B.

The drive to Yucca Mountain from Las Vegas in the Energy Department 
van takes about two hours. We park at the north entrance to the 
tunnel, don hardhats, and poke our heads inside. It's U-shaped, I'm 
told, and five miles long, but we venture just far enough to escape 
the heat. According to the plans, one day this tunnel will be the 
path down which sealed canisters of radioactive waste travel to their 
final resting place 1,000 feet below the ridgeline of the mountain. 
Construction of the tombs, however, has yet to begin, pending 
licensing approval. Other than testing, all progress at Yucca has 
been stalled since 1997.
What can a convert teach us?

Stewart Brand is a greenie from way back. Creator of the Whole Earth 
Catalog in his hippie days. Taught a generation about organic farming 
and composting toilets and how to live off the land. His house is a 
tugboat in San Francisco Bay, but his office is in a flowery, 
forested nook in Sausalito, Calif. Brand greets me all dressed in 
black, right down to his sandals - that's his style. White hair, 
what's left of it. Blue-gray eyes. A reading chair in the corner of 
his office and a grandfather clock. Many shelves of books, 
meticulously organized. Knows right where to find the ones he wants, 
pulls them out while we talk, drops them on the table, thunk.

"What did you think of Yucca Mountain?" he wants to know.  Weird, I 
say.  Dickensian.  Probably doomed.

"Depending on how you count it, somewhere between $6 billion and $13 
billion has been thrown down that rat hole," he says, and for that he 
blames ... himself.  "Me and my fellow environmentalists," he means, 
"who said you've gotta prove that this is absolutely, perfectly safe 
for 10,000 years.  You can't do scenarios for 10,000 years - 
everything flies apart.  One hundred fifty or 200 years from now, 
humanity will either be pretty much unrecognizable, hovering around 
in terms of communication and starting to speciate new kinds of Homo 
sapiens, or if not that, we'll be back in the Stone Age, in which 
case a bit of radiation in Nevada is the least of our problems.  So 
the whole thing, I think - not entirely intentionally - was set up as 
a self-defeating proposition."

There are alternatives.  Brand got involved a couple of years ago 
with Canada's national debate on what to do about its nuclear waste. 
The solution Canada came up with?  Rather than stash it for 10,000 
years, put it away for 175 years, specifically seven generations. 
"Basically put it there while we think about it," says Brand.  "See 
what other options come along.  Each new generation of nuclear 
reactor is safer and cheaper and smaller and smarter than the 
previous one, and that will probably continue. Likewise whatever we 
might want to do with the spent fuel." Brand, if you haven't figured 
it out, is a convert. Or in his words, a "mild nuclear proponent." 
For Brand, the only real issue is global warming.  And nuclear power, 
he believes, may be our best option.  "From coal you get carbon 
dioxide. Billions of tons of carbon dioxide. The difference in 
consequence is enormous. In the context of carbon dioxide, suddenly 
spent fuel looks pretty good."

Brave nuke world?

The end of my journey brings me all the way back to the beginning, to 
the Idaho National Laboratory in southern Idaho. It was here, on Dec. 
20, 1951, that Walter Zinn, a veteran of the Manhattan Project, fired 
up Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 and illuminated a string of four 
75-watt light bulbs; the next day he lit the whole building. That was 
the first time atomic power had ever been used to generate 
electricity. Today EBR-1 is a tourist attraction. Not a very popular 
one - only about 5,000 visitors a year - but here it is, the original 
reactor vessel (you can stand on the head; it was decommissioned in 
1964), the control room (retro, of course, but so are the new ones), 
and a string of replacement bulbs the tour guide assures me look just 
like the originals. High on the wall behind the reactor, preserved 
behind glass, are the chalk signatures of the 17 scientists and one 
janitor who were present that day. Afterward one of the scientists, 
Reid Cameron, climbed back up the ladder and sketched a crude 
illustration to go with the list of names, something he thought 
emblematic of their achievement.  I can't make it out at first.  Some 
kind of wild-eyed creature whose breath is the wind.  Turns out it's 
the devil.

Over the years Idaho Lab scientists have designed and built 52 test 
reactors. Three are operational today, including the largest test 
reactor in the world.  The mood at the lab these days is more hopeful 
than it's been in decades. Phil Hildebrandt, who's working on 
so-called Generation IV reactors - far-off technology that's safer, 
more reliable, and more versatile (with potential applications in the 
coming hydrogen economy) than anything that's out there today - says, 
"This is not unlike what we did 55 years ago with the Shippingport 
reactor in Pennsylvania.  It's where government and the commercial 
world partner to develop things that are difficult for the commercial 
world to develop by itself."

Kathryn McCarthy, 45, a staff scientist at the lab since 1991, would 
be happy just to see one new plant built before she retires. "I'm 
sort of from that generation where we haven't done anything real," 
she says. "I've done lot of things on paper, a lot of testing.  But 
to actually see that move to the next step and have a plant come 
online would be a huge deal, it really would."

Flying home that night, I'm thinking about what I've learned. I'm 
remembering what Stewart Brand said when I left him in Sausalito. 
Two important things.  To his old friends in the antinuke movement, 
"Don't let up for a minute. Keep bearing down. But take in hand the 
other things that need to happen besides solar and wind and biofuels 
to actually get ahead of a problem that is already far ahead of us." 
And to his old enemies? "I'm sorry. I was wrong, you were right. I'm