Going nuclear

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 future.

By David Whitford, Fortune editor-at-large

(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.

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The entrance to the Yucca Mountain spent-fuel repository, which so far is merely a five mile tunnel.
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Atomic Culture: In New Mexico, the minor-league team is called the isotopes.
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Harvey Wasserman, No-nukes pioneer: "I intend to make it as difficult for them is possible. Those of us who can still walk will be back in droves.
The industry is gearing up to build its first new plants in decades.
How bad was the accident really?
The industry is coming alive in the Midwest's Ohio Valley.
Will power companies foot the bill?
It's not easy building a home for spent radioactive material.
An Idaho lab is at work on next generation reactors that promise to deliver more reliable energy.

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 moving."

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, anyone?

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 them.

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 itself.

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 up."

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 nuclear.

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 that conversation.

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 some role."

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 intensified.

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 your bookends."

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 burns.

"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 have one!"

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 happen."

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 guys."

Who will build them if they come?

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 head.

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 dependence."

What will happen in an emergency?

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 state.

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 preserves.

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 left untripped.

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 works.

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 cool."

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 Plan B.

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 doomed.

"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 pretty good."

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 Neering  Top of page