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
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
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 dishonest."
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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. PENNSYLVANIA
PRESENTS THE FUTURE OF COAL, the billboard says, CLEAN, 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
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
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 DIVERSITY; THE DEATH PENALTY IS DEAD WRONG.
Makes sense. Three 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
"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
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
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
Who will build them if they
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
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
What will happen in an
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 HAPPEN IN AN EMERGENCY AT WATERFORD 3?
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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 sorry."
RESEARCH ASSOCIATE Patricia