Bring It On

Why Houston should want a nuclear power plant

Terrorism is apparently such a concern to STP that the plant has given up all pretense of reaching out to the public. The vintage geodesic dome that is the STP visitors center is abandoned and falling apart. On a recent visit, a Dumpster was sitting near the peeling roof, and a dead palm tree in a weedy garden tilted toward a dry bird bath.

Across the vacant rural lanes of FM 521 and past an open gate in a barbed-wire fence, a driveway wound toward the bell-shaped domes of the plant's twin reactors. It ended at a guard booth where a man in a ball cap emblazoned with a spinning-atom logo blocked the car. A Glock pistol clung to his leg. "Uh, we're not taking visitors right now, sir," he said. "What were you taking pictures of?"

In short order a beet-faced police officer ushered a course back to the highway.

This decaying exhibit near the STP plant demonstrates how the reactor's shell will contain explosions.
Josh Harkinson
This decaying exhibit near the STP plant demonstrates how the reactor's shell will contain explosions.
Ronald Chesser studies the effects of radiation in Chernobyl's "exclusion zone."
Josh Harkinson
Ronald Chesser studies the effects of radiation in Chernobyl's "exclusion zone."

"Go ahead and leave," he said near the gate. "Don't come back, okay?"

The plant's caution is understandable, given public fears of nuclear sabotage and images such as a recent Greenpeace flyer showing two nuclear reactors Photoshopped with giant red targets. But how real is the threat? After all, nuclear plants today are designed to withstand the impact of a commercial airliner. Houston-based former CIA agent David Adler thinks any sort of strike on a plant is unlikely. "It's going to be harder than finding a shopping mall or movie theater or Ringling Bros. circus or getting into an NBA game," he said. "My concern would be the targets that could be more easily attacked."

Of course, terrorism is only the newest in a long line of anti-nuclear worries.

Even non-environmentalists have soured on nuclear after seeing plants such as STP weigh in at billions over projections. In reality, though, nuclear development in countries such as France -– which gets 75 percent of its electricity from atom power -– have driven nuclear costs lower internationally than any other major alternative. According to the Electric Power Research Institute, even accounting for the higher construction, decommissioning and waste-disposal costs in the undeveloped U.S. market, nuclear is by far the cheapest clean option, producing electricity at a mere 12 percent premium over dirty pulverized coal.

Like coal plants, nuclear generators are fueled by destructive mines. Uranium Resources Inc. is pushing Texas lawmakers for environmental exemptions for its mine near the King Ranch, where it has polluted a nearby aquifer with so much uranium that the EPA in 2004 told local residents to stop drinking the water. Yet coal mining is far more ravaging. It kills dozens of miners every year, has leveled literally hundreds of mountains in Appalachia and buried more than 700 miles of streams.

Many opponents of nuclear still worry about how we'll store radioactive waste. Smith asked the same question 20 years ago. He's incredulous that Texas is now privatizing its nuclear waste disposal program: "Giving the contractor every incentive to cut corners and leave us the bill for the cleanup that inevitably will occur," he said.

Reprocessing waste into new fuel, as European countries do, drastically reduces leftovers. U.S. policymakers have opposed the process; it can be tweaked to produce weapons-grade plutonium. But last month the Bush administration changed course, announcing a "Global Nuclear Energy Partnership" to reprocess waste from nuke plants in the United States and the developing world, keeping nuclear material out of the hands of companies and unstable governments. Technology advances have convinced environmentalists such as Brand to stop worrying whether the controversial $58 billion Yucca Mountain dump in Nevada will hold waste for more than a few centuries. "We really don't need or probably want to stash the stuff for 10,000 years," he says, "because chances are wonderful we are going to find out ways to get energy out of that waste."

Of course, chances are also wonderful that some guy in a nuclear plant at some point in the course of millions of shifts logged, parts cleaned and levers pulled is somehow going to royally screw up. "You are trusting companies whose inherent motive it is to make a profit with one of the most inherently dangerous processes known to man, and you are hoping they don't cut corners," Smith says. "And yet the evidence that we've seen in plant after plant is that corners have been cut, safety has been compromised and accidents happen."

Problems plagued the STP plant long before it went online. Edna Ottney, a nuclear consultant hired by the nonprofit Government Accountability Project to monitor construction of the plant, uncovered roughly 700 whistle-blower complaints. A mechanical engineer said he was fired for refusing to approve inaccurate quality assurance documents; another employee said he received an unfairly harsh performance review after he called attention to falsified welding records; and a Brown & Root construction foreman allegedly told a site inspector: "If you and all your long-haired hippie sons of bitches don't get your shit together, I'll kick the dog shit out of you." Ottney savaged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's response to her findings, describing the subsequent investigation to the Houston Chronicle as a "whitewash."

Five years after the plant fired up, a pump failure convinced the NRC to shut it down. Regulators then discovered deep hostilities between plant management and workers, thousands of unfilled maintenance orders and major cases of negligence. A valve in the reactor cooling system that wasn't supposed to be left open for more than four hours wasn't closed for nine months. At one point plant managers had waited two and a half hours to notify control room operators that a reactor shutdown system had been declared inoperable. Two plant guards filed and later won a lawsuit claiming they were fired for pointing out security problems. STP sat dormant for more than a year. Continuing slipups later kept it on the NRC's list of "problem plants" for months.

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