By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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."
In fact, one of the country's most appealing markets for a new nuke is right here. Proximity to the natural gas fields of the Gulf Coast convinced investors in the '90s to bet overwhelmingly on gas-fired power plants in the Houston area, leaving us holding some of the stiffest energy bills in the nation. More piqued than anyone are the industrialists along the Houston Ship Channel, who need cheap power to compete with overseas rivals. A group of them joined with the U.S. Department of Energy last year to fund a feasibility study for a new nuclear reactor. Study co-author John Redding says, "There is no question about the economic feasibility of a nuclear power plant." He expects a consortium to move on a new plant "very soon."
Nuclear power is quietly making several other inroads in Texas. At the Houston energy conference last month, an official with reactor manufacturer GE Nuclear Energy disclosed that his company is studying building a new nuclear plant in the state. He wouldn't give details. Two weeks later, General Atomics of California announced a $3 million deal with the University of Texas to design a small helium-cooled test reactor for possible construction near Odessa. And Republican Representative Myra Crownover of Denton is planning exploratory hearings on nuclear power before her House Energy Resources Committee in May. There's no doubt that many Houstonians are ready for a power shift. Frank Bowman, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, recently pitched fission power to an attentive business crowd at the Houston Forum.
A few weeks later, President Bush beamed the pro-nuke message into the nation's living rooms. In his State of the Union address, he announced new funding for "clean, safe nuclear energy." The funds add to the administration's already hefty nuclear commitment: The Department of Energy's "Nuclear Power 2010" program is exploring new sites for plants and streamlining the regulatory process, and incentives for the nuclear industry in the energy bill Bush signed in August total $6.4 billion.
But powering the future also will mean wooing a skeptical American public. In one sign that anti-nuke sentiment is softening, however, some four-star generals in the environmental movement have called a truce with the industry. Environmental Defense director Fred Krupp is neutral on nukes. "I think we have to have an open mind" about the technology, Krupp told National Public Radio last year. "And we should not just throw it off the table from the get-go."
On a September afternoon in 1985, young Tom "Smitty" Smith was mere hours into his new job defending truth and justice for the Austin office of Public Citizen, Ralph Nader's consumer group, when he helped release Risky Business, a report claiming the South Texas Nuclear Plant in Bay City was a costly boondoggle destined to plunge state utility companies into financial sorrow. The group argued for junking the half-built reactor and burning more pulverized coal.
In one respect, Risky Business - more than the glossy reports of high-dollar energy consultants - was startlingly oracular: As it roughly predicted, the STP construction heaved in at a mind-blowing $5.5 billion over budget. But 20 years later, Risky Business nonetheless appears misguided. The same pulverized coal plants that it hyped as alternatives to nuclear - seven of them have been fast-tracked for approval this year by Governor Rick Perry - are being vigorously opposed by the balding, gray-bearded Austin director of Public Citizen, the very same Smitty Smith.
A few minutes before Smith kicked off the first of many anti-coal press conferences last month, he was wearing dress slacks under blue jeans. He hoisted himself into his jacked-up Toyota pickup. A dream catcher swung from the rearview mirror as he rolled toward the Governor's Mansion towing an old trailer that said in red letters on the side, "No more dirty coal!" Power plants stenciled near the words spewed painted smoke. "This trailer has now had, I guess, three different lives," Smith mused. It carried placards opposing war and placards supporting solar power, but Smith's anti-nuke placards were made even before the trailer's time before protest technology weighed so much. Smith double-parked near the capitol and hauled out a heavy bundle of rubberized plastic. "Hey, Neil!" he barked to a volunteer. "Will you help us get the power plant over here? That thing takes 20 minutes to inflate."
As a perspiring Smith unrolled the prop in a grassy square, annoyed media members gawked; a typo on the press release had sent them there early. They listened to a gas generator kick in and watched the plant puff 20 feet skyward. Each of four smokestacks displayed a little foreboding message: Asthma attacks. Acid rain. Mercury poisoning. Global warming. Smith returned to the trailer and handed a woman a tubular foam smokestack to wear, along with a gray cotton plume taped to a bike helmet. College students unfurled banners. Smith reappeared before the bulging plant wearing a crisp suit. Cameras rolled. Speeches gushed.
"Scores of new studies each year demonstrate that air pollution from coal-burning power plants is harmful to human health and that children are the most susceptible," Gregg Sheff, a lab-coat-clad member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, told the reporters as he held a cooing toddler. Mercury emitted from coal plants "is a potent neurotoxin that interferes with brain development, especially in the fetus," he said. Sheff's facts were hard to ignore: Environmental Protection Agency statistics show Texas leads the nation in mercury releases. The Texas Medical Association has called for a 70 percent reduction in the emissions. And yet a giant new coal-fired plant fast-tracked by Perry this year would emit more mercury than any plant in the nation.
Smith took the podium to announce the clincher: Coal-generated air pollution in Texas each year causes more than 1,000 people to die 15 years early. "And if we increase the amount of particulate pollution," he said, "these deaths are going to increase as well."
Few of the elaborate props at the anti-coal carnival - a pregnant woman, a cardboard windmill, a nauseous green face - illustrated the way coal plants fuel global warming, which many scientists consider their most troubling side effect. Nearly 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Texas come from coal. New coal plants would make things worse even as signatories to the Bush-spurned Kyoto Protocol - and several U.S. states - are scrambling to avert what scientists predict will be a two- to ten-degree increase in global temperatures over the next century.
Of course, Houstonians scarcely need reminding of the dire consequences of global warming. Powerful storms such as Rita and Katrina are harbingers of a warmer future. Scientists say hotter oceans will produce stronger hurricanes. Also, some climate models show greenhouse warming could quickly trigger fiercer El Niρo events that will cause harsher rains and longer droughts such as this year's near-record dry spell.
The National Center for Atmospheric Research recently appointed Robert Harriss as the region's own sort of global warming czar. Even as the Bush administration ignores climate change, Harriss's job is to figure out how Houston will deal with it. He's particularly interested in how the projected one-foot rise in sea levels over the next century will affect the vulnerability of Galveston and the Ship Channel to storm surges. "The Gulf region is one that needs to be looked at very closely," he says, "because we do have so many vulnerabilities."
Smith wrapped up the press conference, called for help deflating the power plant - "Fold it in thirds and don't step on it, please" - and drove back to his office. He sat down in a conference room festooned with posters of sun rays bouncing between earth and its carbon-dioxide-choked atmosphere. Smith clearly takes global warming seriously. But as he shared his thoughts on Texas's energy future, it became clear he still vehemently opposes the climate-friendly nuclear option. So how would he keep the lights on?
Smith, though a great booster of alternative energy, admitted it can't immediately fulfill all of our needs by itself (see "Power Plays"). While these technologies are improving, he argued, energy conservation measures can tide us over. "Japan and Europe use roughly half the energy per dollar of gross domestic product as we do," he said, "and we are losing the race just because we use so much energy to make each widget."
Some very smart people agree. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank that has consulted for the U.S. Department of Energy, 75 percent of the electricity used in the United States today could be saved through better energy efficiency. Simply requiring every U.S. household to replace four 100-watt light bulbs with fluorescents could supplant 30 midsize power plants.
Even so, the U.S. Congress and Texas legislature have largely ignored energy-efficiency options. A state bill last session that would have doubled energy-efficiency requirements in new homes and almost immediately recouped the costs in energy savings never made it out of committee.
It's easy to see why. The power industry is simply too powerful. Companies seeking new coal plants in the state have transmitted $750,000 to Texas political action committees and politicians since 2003, including more than $65,000 to Governor Perry. Nationally, the energy sector funneled candidates and PACs $50.6 million, 75 percent of it to Republicans. Environmental groups in the same period handed out a dim $2 million.
And that's why increasing numbers of environmentalists say it's time to get real.
"Dirty coal versus nuclear is really the debate," said Stuart Brand. He's the founder of the prestigious Whole Earth Catalog, a well-known eco-technologist and a recent nuclear power convert. "The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power," he wrote last year in MIT's Technology Review. "The industry is mature, with a half century of experience and ever improved engineering behind it."
Brand joins a prestigious eco-sect of pro-nuke heretics that now includes Patrick Moore, the estranged co-founder of Greenpeace; scientist and best-selling environmental author Jared Diamond; and James Lovelock, the progenitor of the Gaia theory of earth as a self-replicating organism. "Nuclear power," Lovelock wrote recently in the London Independent, "is the only green solution."
The interest of environmentalists and the media in nuclear power has created the industry's greatest public relations opportunity in 25 years. The shift in tone among erstwhile skeptics is so massive that one could almost presume it's a trap set by devious puppeteers.
Perplexed and rather suspicious local nuclear power plant spokesmen didn't know what to make of enthusiastic calls from the Houston Press. STP nuclear facility spokesman Ed Conway refused to give a tour of his plant. So did an official with the Comanche Peak nuclear plant in North Texas. They both cited terrorism worries. They suggested interviews instead and later backed out of them. "Our owners have no interest in expanding the facility" was Conway's excuse. At least he doesn't discriminate. The Austin chapter of the American Nuclear Society gleefully announced on its Web site last year: "STP tour!" and then had to cancel it. "Security has become considerably more tight since 09/11/01," wrote the group's president, "which seems to be our main roadblock."
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.
"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.
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."
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.
"I really think that radiation is a poor toxin," Chesser said. "But as Aristotle said, the dose makes the toxin, and the dose is what's important here. Radiation will kill you with a certain amount of dose; hot water will kill you with a certain amount of heat, but hot water is nice if you need a good bath. It depends upon the degree."
Chesser's animal findings should apply equally well to humans, with one major exception, he said. Weasels and voles outside controlled laboratory conditions don't live long enough to shed much light on radiation's contribution to cancer risk. Initial estimates predicted that Chernobyl radiation would cause 70,000 cancer-related deaths worldwide. Yet that figure was probably almost as alarmist as the mutation fears debunked by Chesser. A comprehensive World Health Organization study completed last year scaled back the cancer-related-death estimate to 4,000.
Four thousand deaths, though awful, deserve perspective: The number pales against the 5,200 Chinese coal miners who in 2004 perished in accidents, the 15,000 Americans estimated by the Harvard School of Public Health to die prematurely each year from coal-plant-induced air pollution, and certainly the millions, if not billions, of deaths worldwide that could result from flooding, ecological collapse and resource wars prompted by carbon-dioxide-driven climate change. "Energy is dangerous stuff," Chesser says. But experience shows our ruling politicians will probably never vote for the energy conservation measures that could help us use less of it. Nuclear power is the only alternative with a chance.
After all, the Houston area is a place where a ship exploded and razed Texas City, oil refineries spawned suspicious cancer clusters, and a recently approved liquefied natural gas terminal could erupt in a giant fireball, and yet hardly anyone complained. What's good for business is good for Houston, the thinking goes. The same equation applies to nuclear power. Potentially flashing radiation over a small nuclear plant town such as Bay City will save us some money on electricity. Nothing new. Except that our gamble would just as certainly help save thousands of lives, the climate and maybe the world.