By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Twenty years ago in April, while the Ukrainian capital of Kiev slumbered, the operators of a nearby nuclear power station began a test. They wanted to know how long the plant could cool itself without electricity. Engineers in the control room powered down the reactor, disconnected the emergency cooling system and removed rods that controlled heat in the uranium core. They expected water trapped inside the core to keep temperatures stable. Instead, it vaporized with the force of an exploding ton of TNT. The blast of steam ripped through the plant's steel-and-cement roof in a gyre of parts and fuel; the core chain-reacted into a 9,000-degree inferno. Graphite fuel casings burst into flames and filled the night sky with a mile-high plume of radioactive smoke.
The deadly cloud narrowly grazed Pripyat, where most of the workers at the Chernobyl power plant lived, and blew terror across the skies of northern Europe. Firefighters battled the radioactive blaze for weeks with hoses and axes and tons of boron, lead and dolomite dropped from helicopters into the smoldering core. Thirty-one workers died. Thousands of downwind residents are thought to have contracted cancer. Fifty thousand Pripyat inhabitants packed a single suitcase each and permanently evacuated the town, leaving in their wake the world's largest monument to Promethean folly.
Six years later, Chernobyl was still hot as Texas Tech biology professor Ronald Chesser sat in an office in Kiev arguing with a bureaucrat for access to the plant's evacuated "exclusion zone." The Soviet Union was just then opening to Westerners, but the bureaucrat insisted that glasnost didn't apply to off-limits nuclear wastelands. Then the man's phone rang. A member of the Soviet parliament, interested in Chesser's research on the effects of radiation, told him to let the scientist in. "The next minute, the guy turned and said, 'Well, where do you want to go?' " Chesser recalls. 'And I said, 'To the reactor!' "
The Soviets dressed Chesser in a lumberjack shirt and an overly short pair of perma-pressed military slacks that were to be thrown away later. An army jeep drove him through the Red Forest, named for its stands of radiation-scalded pines that had reddened and died. He rounded a bend, clutching a steadily beeping Geiger counter, and stepped off the jeep in sight of the towering cement sarcophagus –- Chernobyl's tomb. The scrubby land rippled out from the road in a series of berms. Only when Chesser walked across them, and his Geiger counter went crazy, did he realize they were the plowed-under remnants of the plant's tainted flotsam. He later learned that rainwater drained through them on its way into Kiev's tea kettles.
In a room near the sarcophagus, Chesser donned a protective suit with white booties, goggles, an orange helmet and a respirator. He walked into a lobby where a clerk, sitting inside what looked like a movie ticket booth, took his name. Through another door, in a smoky cafeteria, workers clamped him with instruments to monitor his radiation dose. And he entered the ruins of Chernobyl.
A long, narrow hallway sparsely lit by dim bulbs opened into a corridor filled with ripped-out electrical cabinets, their shorn wires menacing like heads of Hydra. His heart pounding, Chesser walked through a door into the frontal lobe of the machine. A sheath of clear plastic draped a wall of gauges. Chesser thought of the workers who bolted out of this control room to investigate the explosion, who rescued colleagues weak from radiation poisoning, who rode out the blast in a last-ditch effort to dial the rogue core back into submission. They all died. "For a half-hour, I was with them," he says. "Everything that I knew they had done, I imagined them doing." Through their goggles, he could see the hint of tears in the eyes of his colleagues.
Perhaps more than any living American, Chesser understands how nuclear power can spawn untold horrors in an instant. Which is why it might seem odd that he supports building new reactors. Chesser has joined an increasingly diverse group of scientists, energy analysts and even environmentalists who believe the United States must meet its energy needs by going back to the nuclear future. Many of these advocates of atom splitting support building a nuclear plant near Houston.
It's a scary proposition, and it may be the best one we've got.
The last time a nuclear power plant was ordered in America, Mork & Mindy was premiering on ABC, striped tube socks were all the rage, and a sweater-clad Jimmy Carter was cranking down the heat in the White House. Clearly, fission energy has been snoozing though a long nuclear winter. But energy prices unseen since the '70s oil crisis, combined with the increasing threat of global warming, are bringing the once-bearish nuclear power market out of its den.
At the world's largest annual energy conference, sponsored last month by Cambridge Energy Associates in Houston, talk of nuclear power sizzled. "My view of nuclear is that it is probably going to come back," said Walter Higgins, CEO of Sierra Pacific in Nevada, the nation's fastest-growing energy utility. Higgins and most other speakers predicted record-high natural gas prices -– which are driving the spike in our electric bills -– will stay high for years to come. Alex Urquhart, CEO of GE Energy Financial Services, a major bankroller of power plants, said that means that "nuclear, on a cost basis, is an awfully attractive option."