Bring It On

Why Houston should want a nuclear power plant

More recent nuclear plant news doesn't inspire much confidence. STP was shut down for four months in 2003 and again last month after its reactor cooling system sprang a leak. A radiation leak reported at the LaSalle County nuclear plant in Illinois late last month prompted it to declare the nation's first nuclear "site-area emergency" in more than a decade. Meanwhile, nuclear regulators appear shackled. According to a 2003 report by the NRC's inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, 47 percent of NRC employees don't feel comfortable raising safety issues. The Union of Concerned Scientists gets more calls from concerned NRC employees than from the employees of all the nation's nuclear plants combined.

Nonetheless, Congress this year granted a 15-year extension to the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, a 1957 law that limits the industry's liability in the event of a catastrophic accident. The law in effect subsidizes the industry's insurance premiums with tax dollars and is thought to be necessary to make nuclear cost-competitive on the open market. Smith believes the law is dangerous: "It makes the utilities far less cautious about operating the plant."

Chesser collected the most radioactive weasel known to man.
Josh Harkinson
Chesser collected the most radioactive weasel known to man.
These voles ate cesium-absorbing mushrooms, making them, on average, the most radioactive rodents in the exclusion zone.
Josh Harkinson
These voles ate cesium-absorbing mushrooms, making them, on average, the most radioactive rodents in the exclusion zone.

Nobody knew what kind of impact the massive scale of disaster envisioned by the Indemnity Act could have on public health and the environment until Chernobyl exploded and scientists such as Chesser poked though the debris. Some of the most striking findings have surfaced only recently. After Chesser decided to work in Chernobyl's exclusion zone, he couldn't very well study humans - all of them had permanently fled - so he baited thousands of animal traps with oats. For years he assembled a veritable nuclear Noah's ark. He collected field mice, voles, shrews, hedgehogs, weasels and even the scat of wolves. Many of these curiosities he brought back to Lubbock and deposited in a mostly off-limits room in the Texas Tech natural history museum.

Last month Chesser arranged to view the radioactive menagerie. He stepped into the museum through a side entrance, signed a logbook in a hallway as loud cooling fans whirred overhead and was escorted by a chirpy curator, Heath Garner, up a cinder-block stairwell past the dour head of a moose ("Alaskan," Garner said). The stairs ended at a regular-looking door that was plastered with a half-dozen assorted safety warnings and radiation symbols. Garner sought to reassure. "We take readings every month to make sure the radiation isn't getting worse," he said.

Inside the room, Garner produced several Ziploc bags holding meaty animal bones. "Here's the stuff that's unprocessed," he said. Chesser grabbed an ancient Geiger counter - a toaster-sized instrument full of analog dials - and waved the microphone-shaped sensor over the remains. Nothing happened. "I think you've got a dead battery," Chesser said. He flipped a switch, saw that the battery worked and waved the sensor once more over the bag. Nothing. As he speculated on the bag's provenance, the Geiger counter suddenly erupted. The radiation dial maxed out. The room was filled with a staccato fusillade of clicks. "Okay! Yeah! Now we're getting somewhere!"

The clicks died.

"I'd say you need some work on your Geiger counter," Chesser said.

They placed the instrument aside and Garner pulled a dusty shoebox off a shelf. That is where he combines the fleshy animal carcasses with flesh-eating beetles. "The beetles will strip the flesh off until it's a full skeleton or a full skull," Garner said. "They get between all the single ribs, too." The cleaned-off bones go into carefully labeled vials. The beetles die and go into permanent storage in glass aquariums sitting against a wall. Those too were plastered with radiation symbols.

More radiation warnings adorned the metal cabinet, where Chesser keeps whole animals. He opened a drawer. It revealed two neat rows of stuffed voles, each posed with its front and back paws stretched out like it was a flying action figure. The micelike creatures feast on a diet of cesium-absorbing mushrooms, Chesser explained, making them on average the most radioactive animals in the exclusion zone. But his single most radioactive creature is a weasel - the most radioactive weasel known - which he thinks ate a vole.

Chesser picked it out of a drawer with his bare hand. "It was really a hot little dude," he said.

The weasel, a long, skinny animal in a white coat with a sort of racing stripe of brown, was in 1995 the subject of numerous tests for mutations, genetic abnormalities and reproductive health. The result? It was in perfect health. "And very vigorous, as far as I can recall," Chesser said. "Weasels are crazy animals; they will literally chew you from finger to elbow before you know what it's about. I used to have one in an aquarium. Boy, you drop a mouse in it, it will devour it.

"But in all of these animals," he added in reference to his entire collection, "we have not seen any physical or genetic abnormalities."

As results to this effect first trickled in a decade ago, they seemed so preposterous to Chesser that he thought there had to be an explanation. There was simply no way every animal living in one of the most radioactive environments on earth could be perfectly normal. Chesser wondered if years of exposure had killed vulnerable creatures and spared others with a radiation tolerance. So in 1998 he brought in mice from outside the zone and raised them in cages in the Red Forest. Those mice fared just as well as the natives. Only then did it hit him. The health effects of serious, long-term radiation exposure probably weren't, after all, so bad.

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