This article originally appeared in GQ and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
ON THE MORNING of March 28, 1979, just after 4 a.m., a pair of workers on the graveyard shift at Three Mile Island nuclear plant noticed something odd: The filters for the system’s cooling water had spontaneously shut down.
This was troubling, but far from catastrophic. Although the flow of water is essential to a nuclear plant—it keeps the radioactive fuel from overheating—TMI had been designed to handle just this type of problem. In the event of a filter shutdown, a bypass valve was engineered to open automatically, sending water around the obstruction and directly into the plant.
Unfortunately, at TMI that morning, no sooner had the filters broken than the bypass valve broke, too.
As the supply of coolant came to a stop, the plant’s internal temperature began to soar. Luckily, TMI had been designed to handle this problem, too. Within minutes, a second emergency valve popped open, venting the excess heat and steam into the containment facility.
Unfortunately, ten seconds later, that valve broke, too—staying open long after the pressure was reduced, and allowing steam and water to continue flooding out of the plant.
Now TMI was in a double bind. On the one hand, the supply of fresh water had stopped; on the other, the plant’s existing water was quickly flowing out. It was only a matter of time before the plant would be completely drained, and the uranium inside, exposed to the open air, would begin to burn furiously, becoming impossible to control, a condition known to the industry as “meltdown,” in which, like a slow-motion nuclear bomb, the walls of the plant would incinerate and collapse, and a black cloud of radioactive poison would alight above the eastern seaboard.
There was only one glimmer of hope: the plant’s operators, who had decades of experience and, with quick action, could almost certainly slow the damage—either by pumping additional water into the plant from another source, or by closing the open valve.
Unfortunately, the operators did neither.
Inside the plant’s cavernous control room, they stood before a seven-foot-high instrument panel, crammed with hundreds of -dials, gauges, and meters, many of which were erupting with alarm sirens and flashing lights, but none of them had any idea what it meant. As the minutes turned into hours, and the plant’s internal temperature soared above 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, then 1,500 degrees, with water levels plummeting and the prospect of meltdown becoming more likely by the second, the confused operators did nothing to improve the situation. In fact, they made it worse. When one of the plant’s emergency systems began replacing water at a rate of nearly a thousand gallons per minute—which probably would have stemmed the crisis—operators turned the pumps off. Then, for reasons that are difficult to comprehend, they shut down the plant’s circulating pumps, preventing the cool water still inside the building from reaching the superheated core.
It would be another two hours before the morning shift arrived and stopped the leak.
By then, it was too late: The temperature inside the reactor had risen to more than 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat had caused the top half of the radioactive chamber to collapse on itself. The uranium fuel had melted into a lake of radioactive liquid. The zirconium skin around that fuel had evaporated into a broth of volatile gases, including a giant cloud of hydrogen that would soon explode into a fiery ball. And the nation, still asleep in the early-morning hours, was spiraling into the worst nuclear accident in its history, a cataclysm of fear and public mistrust that would consume the airwaves and charge the political dialogue for months; that would bring white-suited emergency-response crews to the site and would summon the president of the United States to visit in a pair of bright yellow protective booties, ordering a full investigation; that would take ten years and a billion dollars to clean up, would destroy the nation’s faith in atomic technology, and would bring the hope and promise of nuclear power—promoted since the 1950s as a clean and plentiful source of energy that would be “too cheap to meter”—to a grinding, glowing, terrified halt.
TODAY, THE COOLING TOWERS at Three Mile Island still loom above the rolling Pennsylvania landscape like four giant spacecraft descending upon the American pastoral. At nearly 400 feet tall and made of enough concrete, it is said, to pave a four-lane highway to Baltimore, they dominate the view in almost every direction: As you head north along the Susquehanna River, they blot out the afternoon sun; going south toward the local airport, they seem to barricade the end of the road; even looking up to the sky, the thick black high-tension wires and streams of manufactured clouds that spew from the still-working portion of the plant turn the sky into an ugly industrial stew. Standing on the far shore of the river and looking over at TMI, one can easily understand why opponents of nuclear power so often distribute pictures of the plant, a stark visual shorthand for an industry run amok.
Up close, however, the feeling can be different. One morning last February, I stood on the banks of Three Mile Island with the plant’s longtime spokesman, Ralph DeSantis, gazing up at the towers from below. Despite their ominous appearance, they had an almost elegant function: Their only purpose, it turned out, was to create an immense chimney where warm water could fall through the air, cooling as it went. From the ground, we could actually see this happening. Peeking through a series of slanted baffles at the base of the towers, we could peer into the open chamber, where thousands of gallons of water cascaded down the sides. The sound was deafening, like a massive waterfall.
“Overwhelming, isn’t it?” DeSantis shouted over the noise. “Believe it or not, that structure holding the baffles is made of redwood. When the water hits each baffle on the way down, it gets broken up into beads, which helps it cool.” He pointed to a building not far away. “And that’s where the circulating pumps are. The pipes are six feet in diameter! It’s a plumber’s nightmare.”
Like many of the nation’s nuclear workers, DeSantis was a local boy. He had left for college in the 1970s but soon found himself back home and bored, struggling to impart the nuances of civics to schoolkids who could barely read. By early 1979, he had quit teaching for a security job at TMI, but just a few weeks later, when the plant melted down and news crews came swarming, DeSantis jumped at the chance to be part of something bigger. He offered to help with public relations, and within days he was ushering public officials and news celebrities around the site, brushing shoulders with people like Andrea -Mitchell and Diane Sawyer. In the thirty years since, his profile at the nation’s most notorious power plant has led to countless job offers in the PR world, but DeSantis has been happy to stay, becoming a kind of institution at TMI, a model of loyalty in an environment with no greater currency. As we walked from the cooling towers toward the reactor and then throughout the TMI complex, he had the air of a jolly small-town mayor, calling out to nearly everyone we passed and stopping to chat with more than a few.
Even so, as we crossed the plant’s expansive grounds, it was difficult to ignore the presence of danger around us—or anyway, the heightened and elaborate defenses against it. Since September 11, the nation’s 104 nuclear plants have become an object of much attention from homeland-security experts and terrorists alike, and security has skyrocketed, at a cost of more than $1.5 billion so far. TMI was no exception. Where only a few years ago employees could practically drive to the front door and park for the day, the parking lot had been Hail Mary’d several hundred yards away, and the long walk between had been repopulated with a series of three-foot-thick concrete walls—reinforced by two-inch-diameter rods of steel—and surrounded by skeins of razor wire, bulletproof sniper towers, and militarized sentries armed with machine guns. “It’s almost like a canal system of locks and dams,” DeSantis explained as we stepped into what looked like an oversize dog kennel. “When one gate is open, the other is closed. While the person is detained, we can do inspections and explosives detection, and if there’s any problem, there’s a Patriot Gate that rises out of the ground on both sides, which is just as strong as the concrete.” Even the concrete has been tested for impact: A video that circulates among TMI employees shows a pickup truck plowing into the plant’s outermost barrier and collapsing like an accordion. The barrier remains unblemished.
When we reached the entrance to the plant’s guard station, DeSantis and I surrendered our driver’s licenses in exchange for radiation monitors to hang around our necks, crossed another gauntlet of security locks enclosed in bulletproof glass, stepped into a machine called a Puffer, which blew air across our bodies and sniffed it for explosives residue, and then passed through a threshold of metal detectors before emerging into a courtyard filled with yet more razor wire and paramilitary guards, where, on the far side, we finally reached the door to the plant itself.
The inside was like nowhere else in the world. It is tempting to say that if you were to wake up inside, without ever having seen a power plant, you would know instantly where you were. Pipes the diameter of a Volkswagen bus and painted in glossy primary colors stretched along the walls and the ceiling, springing into the room at ninety-degree elbows before shooting upward to the floor above or down to the one below. Hoses the size of anacondas coiled their way around corners and over door headers, and stop valves that looked like nautical steering wheels were strapped to the walls with tags to identify them. Everything was polished and reflective under bright lights, and the air seemed to shiver from the pipes’ vibrations. It was like being trapped inside a giant air conditioner.
We climbed an open metal staircase that stretched between the pipes and machinery and followed catwalks to look around. Virtually everything around us related to water: tanks so enormous that the curve of the cylinder was nearly imperceptible, filters capable of purifying thousands of gallons at once. If the Hollywood depiction of a nuclear plant involves zones of exposure and pervasive risk, where workers live in fear of radiation—think The China Syndrome or Silkwood—life inside a real power plant was startling proof of what actually drives a nuclear plant: water. Except for the presence of uranium in a single room, the rest of a nuclear compound is essentially a giant steam engine, with three circuits of water doing virtually all the work.
The first of these water circuits, known as the primary, is the only one that actually touches radioactive fuel. In the earliest stage of the process, this water is channeled through a series of tall, thin tubes of uranium known as fuel rods, which are extremely hot from their natural decay process. It takes only a few seconds for the heat from the uranium to make the water hot, too. Once the water reaches 212 degrees, it must be pressurized to avoid boiling; at 600 degrees, under 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, it is ready to be pumped into the next stage of the process, known as the steam generator.
Here, the superheated primary water is brought into contact with a secondary circuit of cooler water. Since the pipes of the two circuits are allowed to touch but the water inside them is not, only the heat can be transferred, and none of the radioactivity. As the secondary circuit absorbs this heat, it boils into steam, which is piped into a series of giant fan blades known as turbines. The force of the steam blowing through those fans causes the blades to spin. If Three Mile Island were a steamboat, this would be the final result—the spinning fans would rotate a paddle wheel and push the boat across the water. Instead, at a power plant, the spinning motion is used to rotate a giant coil of wire inside a magnetic field, creating a current of loose electrons.
Presto: nuclear power.
All that remains is to cool the water and start over. For this, a third circuit of water is pumped into the plant directly from the Susquehanna River, absorbing heat and then flowing back outside to the cooling towers and into the river below. Since, at least in theory, this water never comes into contact with anything inside the plant except its own pipes, the warm water returning to the river should be no more or less polluted than when it was first pumped out. Likewise, the evaporative clouds billowing from the tops of the cooling towers, which appear so grimy in photographs, are actually no different from the clouds forming naturally above the river. In fact, those billowing clouds, which even some nuclear workers casually refer to as “smoke” or “steam,” are actually neither. Like a man’s breath on a cold day, they’re mostly water vapor and tend to fade or even disappear in warm weather. True steam, by comparison, is the more sophisticated substance—entirely gaseous and devoid of humidity—that powers a plant’s turbines, and this almost never stops blowing, especially at TMI. Over the past ten years, the plant has become famous for its constancy, setting records for continuous operation. The latest, among more than 250 similar reactors worldwide, was 689 days without pause or fail.
What all this amounts to, in a typical year, is about 7.2 million megawatt hours of electricity, or enough to satisfy the needs of 800,000 homes. By way of comparison, to produce the same amount of electricity, a coal-fired power plant would have to incinerate more than 3 million metric tons of fuel, producing 500 pounds of carbon dioxide per second, as well as 1,200 pounds of ash per minute and 750 pounds of sulfur dioxide every five minutes. Looking at the cooling towers with that in mind, where a smokestack would be at any of the nation’s 600 coal plants, it is easy to appreciate the lure of nuclear power: The carbon footprint of a nuclear plant is precisely…nothing.
After a tour through the rest of the plant—including the control room, where -operations are monitored twenty-four hours a day, and the turbine chamber, where the eighteen-foot turbines spinning at 2,000 rpm generate a dizzy, strangely exhilarating high—DeSantis took me outside for a peek at the rest of the island.
Although the TMI plant occupies less than half of Three Mile Island itself, for security reasons the entire landmass is kept under armed guard, creating a de facto wildlife preserve around the facility of about 400 acres. As we entered this small wilderness, the transition from extreme industry to -extreme nature was instantaneous. If the popular image of Three Mile Island has become a Guernica of toxic devastation, the island itself was a bucolic rebuttal: Redbud trees and sycamores abounded among stands of native switchgrass, and plumes of second-year mullein stood as stiff and straight as uranium fuel rods. The sound of the river was punctuated only by the songs of birds. “We had osprey nesting here two years ago,” DeSantis said, “and there’s a pair of peregrine falcons nesting by the reactor building right now—I understand it’s one of only ten nesting pairs in Pennsylvania. It’s cool when you see them teaching their babies to fly. We also get Canadian geese and foxes and deer, and some of the local ornithologists think the bald eagles are going to nest soon, too—they’re already around.”
To DeSantis, there was nothing improbable about any of this, finding a wildlife sanctuary on the site of the nation’s worst nuclear meltdown. The accident, for him, was a long-distant nightmare, an aberration, dwarfed and marginalized by three decades of clean, safe power without a single accident. “I wish I could bring more people here to see for themselves,” he said. “Sometimes we bring reporters, but they only want to talk about the accident. They only care what happened thirty years ago.”
DeSantis looked mystified.
TO UNDERSTAND WHY TMI still resonates so powerfully in American life, and our public policy, it’s helpful to separate the accident’s impact into two distinct categories: the -radiological fallout, and the psychological.
How much fallout was there?
From a radiological standpoint, the impact is somewhat easier to measure. Radiation is counted in units called millirems. Because the earth is warmed by the largest nuclear reactor of all—the sun—virtually all of us are exposed to a certain baseline of millirems each year, depending on where we live. At higher elevations, like Denver, the sun is closer, and citizens receive about 180 millirems per year; at lower elevations, like Delaware, residents receive only 20 or 30. Building materials can also make a difference: Because of the presence of -elements like radon in many rocks, people who live in brick or stone houses tend to receive 50 or 100 millirems more each year than people who live in wooden houses. Region also has an impact. In areas rich with coal, residents absorb about 100 millirems annually from the ground; in northeastern Washington State, residents get about 1,500 millirems from local minerals; in certain parts of India, as much as 3,000 millirems per year may come from the ground. A cigarette smoker gets about 1,300 millirems per year, mostly from the presence of the radioactive isotope polonium-210, which is found in tobacco (and, recently, in the autopsy reports of Russian spies). Back home in Washington, D.C., Dick Cheney gets about 100 millirems every year from his pacemaker. Every time you go in for a dental X-ray, you get 5. Chest X-ray: 15. PET scan: 650. In fact, just by being alive, you generate a little radiation of your own, and most people absorb about 40 millirems each year from themselves.
At Three Mile Island, according to a 1980 inquiry by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the maximum level of radiation that anybody within a fifty-mile radius could have received from the accident was about 100 millirems—the equivalent of moving to Colorado for a year, or into a brick house for two. According to another study, by the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Environmental Resources, among 721 locals tested, not a single one showed radiation exposure above normal. A similar study by the state’s Department of Agriculture found no significant trace of radiation in the local fish, water, or dairy products, which tend to register minute impurities. And a study released in 2000 by the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh found that, twenty-one years after the accident, there was still no evidence of “any -measurable impact” on public health.
Given the extreme scale of the meltdown at TMI—including an explosion of hydrogen, the liquefaction of radioactive uranium, and the release of a plume of radioactive gas into the air outside—it is reasonable to conclude that the lesson of Three Mile Island is not merely a matter of what went wrong at the plant but also an example of what went right. For so many people and so many systems to fail so spectacularly all at once, without any measurable effect on public health, may be the last, best proof that a system is working.
Still, for nearly thirty years, the psychological fallout from TMI has metastasized into something much more difficult to measure or explain. In the aftermath of the meltdown, the number of Americans who support nuclear-power plants has dropped from a high of 70 percent before the -accident to around 40 percent, and today one in ten people would like to eliminate the nation’s fleet of nuclear plants entirely. What drives this opposition, in many cases, is the conflation of magnitude with probability. That is, when people worry about nuclear power, what they worry about is the scale of an accident, not the likelihood. In this regard, nuclear power is just the opposite of the nation’s coal-fired plants, where harm to the environment is both ruinous and certain but comfortingly slow. It may take decades or even centuries for the effects of particle soot, acid rain, and global warming to claim a million lives. By contrast, the nightmare scenario with nuclear power is decades of cheap, plentiful, pollution-free energy—followed by a sudden meltdown that wipes out a city. For most people, the reality that coal-based pollutants like mercury and sulfur dioxide are killing us every day—taking as many as 24,000 lives per year, according to nonpartisan researchers (that’s a Chernobyl disaster every eleven hours), while nuclear plants have never claimed an American life—is beside the point. The image of a city disappearing in a nuclear haze, however improbable it may be, trumps everything else. Many people, according to polls, not only oppose building new nuclear plants; they oppose the ones we already have. Unfortunately, since nuclear energy currently makes up about 20 percent of the nation’s electrical supply, in order to eliminate it, the rest of the nation’s power suppliers would have to amplify their own production by 25 percent of existing levels. Since that’s not possible for most current renewables—like wind, solar, and hydroelectric farms, which are already maxed out—the real cost of eliminating today’s nuclear-power supply would be an immediate 30 percent increase in the nation’s coal, gas, and oil plants. That’s 30 percent more sulfur dioxide, mercury, and nitrogen oxide in the air than we’re emitting today. Also, since those plants make up nearly 40 percent of the nation’s total carbon dioxide output, that means an instantaneous, and permanent, 12 percent rise in carbon emissions. If only the GNP did so well.
Since the accident at TMI, even this dubious trade-off has been widely promoted by nuclear opponents, and not only on our side of the Atlantic. In Europe—especially after Chernobyl—one could almost hear the brakes squealing in the nuclear industry. Within months, the Italian government had begun to phase out nuclear energy; Germany, which has historically produced about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, began a two-decade melee over the industry, which resulted in a 2000 decision to eliminate it entirely; and Switzerland, Spain, Holland, and Austria have all followed a similar path—even while fast-growing Asian countries like China and India have moved in exactly the opposite direction, rushing to build nuclear plants, with nearly a dozen currently under construction. By 2020, China hopes to quadruple its nuclear-power output.
This has yielded strange ironies between the nations running from nuclear power and those running to it. Without nuclear plants, for example, Germany will no longer be able to meet its own energy needs, and it plans to import a growing chunk each year from France, which remains one of the last European nations to embrace nuclear power and currently produces nearly 80 percent of its total electricity that way. (Providing France, incidentally, with the cleanest air in Europe, the lowest electrical costs, and the greatest percentage of electrical independence, not to mention $4 billion a year in electrical exports.) That means for every ten megawatts of power that Germany plans to purchase from France in the coming years, eight megawatts will be coming from the very technology that requires Germany to import power in the first place.
A similar case exists in the American West. For political reasons, the state of Nevada (home of the dirtiest coal plant in the country, according to a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project) opposes almost everything with the word nuclear in it. But with the rapid growth of Las Vegas in recent years, the state is unable to generate its own power and currently imports as much as 15 percent of its electricity from California and Arizona. Of course, since they produce 14 percent and 23 percent of their power at nuclear plants, respectively, that means Nevada, which likes to proclaim itself “nuclear-free,” actually gets a considerable amount of its power from nuclear plants, too—but at markup prices that profit California and Arizona.
At the federal level, U.S. policy has never mirrored the European retreat from nuclear power, and the Bush administration has actually been as enthusiastic about nuclear energy as it is about every other form of energy. Even so, over the past thirty years, the U.S. government has not issued a single license to build a new nuclear plant. There are two reasons for this. One is that public -opposition has made the development process prohibitively expensive for the industry. In the aftermath of TMI, a number of legal challenges were initiated against plants under construction, and many companies simply abandoned their unfinished projects. Within five years of TMI, some fifty reactors had been scrapped, many of them after billions of dollars’ investment.
But an even bigger challenge to the industry’s development may be the one at the other end of the nuclear process: not the cost of building new plants but the cost of storing old waste.
Since the development of nuclear power in the 1950s, the storage of waste has always been a priority of the federal government. Nuclear waste, after all, is even more dangerous than nuclear fuel, so politicians on both sides of the aisle have long agreed that it is in the national interest to store it safely. And for the past thirty years, Congress has worked to do so, researching the options for a national repository and then, over the past fifteen years, building a multibillion-dollar facility deep in the Nevada desert, more than a thousand feet underground, at a site called Yucca Mountain.
But so far, not a gram of waste has ever been sent there. That’s because the people of Nevada, by a large majority, believe the repository should be in somebody else’s backyard and have thrown up legal challenges at every stage of the site’s development. With the ascension of Nevada’s Harry Reid to the position of Senate Majority Leader in 2006, the state’s quest to block Yucca Mountain seems more likely than ever to succeed. Although development continues, progress is glacial, and Congress has been, to put it mildly, slow to grant approvals. As recently as January of this year, congressional budget cuts forced the repository to fire nearly all its on-site employees, scaling back to a mostly administrative operation. When I asked Senator Reid what would happen to the repository in the coming years, he minced no words. “It will never happen,” he said flatly.
What this means for the nation’s 132 million pounds of radioactive waste is not hard to predict. In politics, as in most things, there is no such thing as a nondecision, and the failure to open Yucca Mountain is an implicit decision to keep the waste where it sits today: dispersed among 121 sites in thirty-nine states, including the nation’s 104 nuclear-power plants—all in temporary facilities. Unfortunately, because each of those plants must be located near a large supply of coolant water, that means fifty years of radioactive waste—growing by about 2,000 metric tons every year—is currently being housed in places like the Indian Point Energy Center, less than twenty-five miles upstream from New York City on the banks of the Hudson River. The irony is that almost nobody on either side of the nuclear debate, not even some of Yucca Mountain’s most ardent critics, actually believes that storing waste at the power plants—dispersed, exposed, with watershed to urban areas—is anywhere near as safe as Yucca Mountain for the long term. Yet there it remains, while Yucca Mountain, deep in the Amargosa Desert, sits empty.
IN PHOTOS, the twenty-five mile ridgeline of Yucca Mountain appears vast and sprawling, but in person the mountain is an unimpressive sight, more like an oversize anthill than any of the real peaks that surround it. Slumped along the California border about a hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas, the 1,200-foot “mountain” is officially part of the mysterious Nevada Test Site, which abuts the even more mysterious Area 51, but technically the repository is managed not by the military but by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy. After $10 billion in development costs and thirty years of observation, it is safe to say that Yucca Mountain has become the most expensive, examined, and—so far, anyway—useless hunk of rock on earth.
To get there, I flew into Las Vegas and joined a team of DOE scientists for the two-hour drive across the desert, led by the former chief scientist for Yucca Mountain, a stout man in his sixties named Michael Voegele, with a jutting jaw and floppy chocolate bangs that fell into his eyes. Voegele was a repository in his own right—full of a stupendous range of arcane minutiae about the project, some of it fascinating, some of it otherwise, and most of which he managed to pack into a rhapsodic soliloquy as we made the drive. “In the early 1930s…,” he began, and for the next two hours, while the other DOE scientists and I listened in some combination of thrall and disbelief, he held forth on the nonpublic history of the Nevada Test Site, the chemical intricacies of uranium fission, the legal nuances of the 1982 Waste Policy Act, and the latest concepts in plate-tectonic theory, pausing only briefly to glance out the window and mutter things like, “Now, if you look out there for a minute, you can see Creech Air Force Base, where they steer the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles flying over Iraq and Afghanistan.…”
Voegele had been a principal at Yucca since its inception and was as enthusiastic about the project’s merits as he was encyclopedic on its history. In the late 1970s, when power plants had begun pressuring the federal government to retrieve and store the waste in their temporary facilities, Congress assigned nine groups to study the options, and Voegele was on the team to research Yucca. With a doctorate in geological engineering and a background in chemistry, he soon came to believe that Yucca Mountain possessed a variety of chemical and physical properties that made it an ideal site for waste disposal. The mountain was nearly half a mile above the water table and more than a hundred miles from any populous area. The layers of rock in the mountain formed a natural shield from most rainfall, Voegele believed, and the composition of that rock created a natural filtration system for the small amount of water that did creep in. Since water is thought to be the most likely way for radiation to escape a repository, these properties would prove essential to Yucca Mountain’s viability.
By the end of 1987, Voegele’s proposal for the mountain had made it through two rounds of cuts by the Department of Energy—from nine options to five, and then down to three—when a lame-duck session of Congress brought the search to an abrupt end, passing a bill titled the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987 but known locally as the “Screw Nevada bill,” which just happened to say in fine print that the other two sites would no longer be considered.
“It was obviously political,” Voegele conceded as we barreled across the desert. “The other two sites were Texas and Washington, and they had a lot more horsepower than Nevada. The story goes that the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, who was from Texas, walked into the office of the Majority Leader, Tom Foley, who was from Washington, and they just looked at each other, and Foley said, ‘It’s Nevada, isn’t it?’ ” Voegele laughed and shrugged. “But coincidentally, I think DOE’s technical information was leaning toward Yucca Mountain anyway. The site in Washington was below one of the largest aquifers in the Northwest, which drains into the Columbia River, and the Texas site was right below the Ogallala Aquifer, which is the largest aquifer in the United States.”
As we pulled up to the Air Force checkpoint, Voegele’s voice began to trail off, and we passed through the gate into the Nevada Test Site, which looked almost identical to the desert we had been crossing outside—brown, dry, littered with creosote and blackbrush—except for the presence of massive experimental structures scattered about, like the 1,500-foot-tall BREN Tower standing alone in the distance, measuring the effects of radiation from precisely the altitude of the Hiroshima bombing.
Several miles in, we reached the base of Yucca and steered the truck up a long ridgeline until we crested to a 360-degree view of the desert. We stepped out, and Voegele threw his arms wide in the shadowless midday sun. “This piece of rock is twelve and a half million years old,” he said to no one in particular. In the distance, we could see the tallest point in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney to the northwest, and to the southwest, the Funeral Mountains perched above the nation’s lowest point, Death Valley. Scattered in between, on the desert floor, volcanic cinder cones sat like rounded black pyramids.
“The tunnels are 1,200 feet below where you’re standing right now,” Voegele said. “The water table is a thousand feet below that. Everything else is layered rock.”
Exactly how those layers of rock might or might not protect the repository from rainfall is what geologists at the DOE and the Nevada government spend most of their time debating. What is clear is that the rock consists of four principal layers, which alternate between a hard and relatively brittle material known as welded tuff and a sponge-like material known as nonwelded tuff. Proponents of Yucca, like Voegele, find in these layers an almost divine confluence of desirable traits. On the surface, where we stood, the harder material cloaks the mountain, shedding most rainfall down the sides and into the surrounding plains. The water that does seep into the cracks, advocates say, would have to travel 300 feet through fissures in a layer called Tiva Canyon, saturate a hundred feet of the softer rock, and then continue through fissures in another several hundred feet of hard rock known as Topopah Spring in order to reach the repository. Even then, to be dangerous, that water would first have to penetrate the metal canisters that are molded around the waste, become irradiated, continue down through several hundred more feet of hard rock, and fill yet another layer of spongy rock known as Calico Hills, before finally reaching the water table, where it might, depending on whose data you believe, either surface a century later in the middle of Death Valley, or else not at all. Also, since the spongy layers of Yucca Mountain happen to be rich in minerals known as zeolites, which are known to neutralize radioactivity, the mountain’s advocates tend to speak with an eerie certainty (some might say religious fervor) about the intelligent design at Yucca Mountain. “All the stars aligned for Yucca Mountain,” Voegele said. “Here’s what it comes down to: Even if the water gets through all the physical barriers, the zeolites would absorb 99.9995 percent of the radionuclides. We know that. The other .0005 percent is what the debate is about.”
Opponents of the repository, of course, tell a different story. For one thing, they don’t believe that the mountain will repel water. But even more important, they say, Yucca Mountain sits on top of a seismic fault. Even if the mountain were some rain-defying wonder of the world, a minor earthquake could change that very quickly. As we stood on the mountain’s summit, it was easy to appreciate this point of view. In addition to the cinder cones peppering the valley floor, a testimony to previous volcanic activity, the geology directly under our feet—Yucca Mountain itself—was actually made of compressed volcanic ash. That’s what welded and nonwelded tuff are. When I asked the head of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, Bob Loux, about this somewhat unsettling fact, he was quiet for a moment, searching for diplomatic language. Instead, he said this: “We have zero trust in the DOE. We believe they’re entirely incompetent. Most people might be surprised that they would claim there is no risk of volcanoes and earthquakes on a seismic fault. But in Nevada, we’re used to hearing things like that. They used to tell us that there were no risks from nuclear-weapons testing. Well, of course there were. A lot of people got sick and died. My dad was a career DOE employee at the Nevada Test Site, and I can tell you that the culture of the DOE is all about downplaying risks. They are flagrant about it. When my dad was working for them, it caused a lot of problems between us. My mom used to have to step in and say, ‘Knock this shit off.’ But after my dad retired, he came up to me and said, ‘You know what? Everything you’re saying about these guys is right.’ ”
In the absence of agreement between the state and the DOE, Congress has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to arbitrate, and in 2001 the EPA released a set of standards for Yucca Mountain: Until otherwise directed, DOE scientists must assume that the state’s concerns are valid and still be able to prove that an earthquake or a volcano under Yucca Mountain would not release more than a certain level of radiation into the atmosphere. That level, according to the EPA guidelines, must be a maximum of 15 millirems per year for the first 10,000 years, and for the period between 10,000 years and a million years, the standard rises to 350 millirems per year. To put it another way, for twice the duration of recorded history and five times as long as the Christian era, a person living on top of Yucca Mountain during an earthquake can only receive as much radiation as a single chest X-ray, and a person living there a million years in the future—that is, in the year 1002008—can only get about half of what the average Seattleite gets today.
If that seems impossibly stringent, Voegele noted, it’s a sign that you don’t work for the state of Nevada. As we loaded back into the truck and headed down to explore the tunnels, he pointed out that the state’s advocates, like Loux, still believe the standard is too easy.
“They used to say, ‘How can you assume a honking big earthquake won’t hurt anything?’ ” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Well, we don’t. We can’t! We have to assume a 6 on the Richter scale, and we’ve been able to demonstrate that it’s safe. So now they’re saying, ‘Well, it shouldn’t be 350 millirems, it should be 15 millirems for the whole million years.’ ” He snorted. “When you start asking for proof of what’s going to happen in a million years, you’re not a serious scientist.”
We rounded a bend into the parking lot for the tunnels, and the scale of the mountain seemed to magnify suddenly. From the summit, Yucca had been dwarfed in the shadow of Mount Whitney and the vast emptiness of the Amargosa Desert, but here at the portal it became cathedralesque, its mouth yawning thirty feet high against a sheer gray cliff, with massive ventilation hoses spilling from the top and a set of railroad tracks plunging into the darkness. As we walked down an elevated gangplank into the cavern, a fifteen-mile-per-hour headwind blew past us, the work of colossal ventilating machines sucking radon gas from the ground. The tunnel stretched endlessly into the distance, a perfect cylindrical void created by a twenty-five-foot-diameter drill known as a Tunnel Boring Machine, which the DOE engineers had literally hitched up and driven five miles through the mountain. Along the sides of the tunnel, circular steel ribs braced the walls every ten feet, giving the passage a skeletal feel, like the inside of a paper dragon.
“This is Alcove 5,” Voegele said as we turned off the main hallway into a shallow cavity. “When waste is brought into the repository, it’s going to be hot. So we conducted tests in here to see how the heat would affect the rock. We raised the temperature above 400 degrees—much higher than the boiling point of water—and kept it there for four years.” In other regions of the mountain, scientists took samples of the rock and exposed them to massive radiation, pressure, fractures, chemical baths, and sonic explosions, meeting the EPA standard—in simulations the agency found sufficient to certify—every time. “You are not going to find another site which can withstand this kind of scrutiny,” Voegele said.
Not all the mountain’s opponents dispute these results on scientific grounds; just as often, their objection rests on a simpler and more resolute fact: No matter what the experiments show, nothing can guarantee how real waste might behave inside the mountain.
This, of course, is undeniable. Yet it is also a standard by which any repository would be ruled out, since experiments and simulations are the only way to evaluate any site. But most of Yucca Mountain’s prominent critics, like Reid and Loux, insist they do support a repository…as long as it’s somewhere else. All of which begs the question: Where? In any location, the storage of radioactive waste must entail at least a small measure of risk, and the search for a solution without that risk—a perfect option—can obscure the options that are merely good, or good enough. The great can be the enemy of the good.
As we drove back toward Las Vegas, Voegele was mostly silent, but when we crested the final hill above the city, he spoke up. “There is an ethical dilemma at Yucca Mountain,” he admitted. “When Jimmy Carter was president, he said that our generation created this waste and we shouldn’t push it to future generations. That’s a very noble thing to say. But the fact is, we have to be careful how we interpret that. We have taken that to mean that Yucca Mountain has to last forever—we can’t expect future generations to fix anything or improve anything, ever. Well, that’s the wrong way to look at it. We should do the best we can right now, but no matter what we do, future generations will be able to change things at Yucca Mountain, they will have more knowledge and experience than we do, and they will probably want to change the system we create. They can do any number of things. They can move the material somewhere else; they can store it in a different way; they can change its chemical composition or reduce the radioactivity with methods we don’t know about. But right now, we don’t have any better options. We can’t leave this waste at the power plants forever. And we’re not going to find another repository without running into the same problems we have now. The bottom line is, Yucca Mountain is the best option we have. If we don’t use it, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
ONE OF THE THINGS we’re not doing is recycling. In other countries, this is known as “reprocessing” fuel, and it is neither complicated nor particularly expensive. It has, however, been illegal in this country for most of the past three decades.
The science of reprocessing is fairly simple. When uranium fuel is removed from a power plant, it is classified as waste, but there is still a tremendous amount of nuclear material inside. The reason the fuel must be removed from the plant is not because it has spent all of its potential but because, along the way, it has generated a variety of dangerous by-products, like cesium and strontium, which are far more radioactive than uranium itself. After a while, these elements would become so prevalent, and so volatile, that it would not be safe to keep them inside the plant, so the fuel rod must be removed.
But cesium and strontium aren’t the only by-products of nuclear power. There is also the element plutonium. And plutonium, as it happens, is a very useful by-product—capable of powering a nuclear plant just like uranium. In fact, by the time a fuel rod is typically removed from a power plant, most of its uranium is spent, and its power is coming from the plutonium. Yet once the fuel rod is decommissioned, that plutonium is locked away with the cesium and strontium. Simply by extracting the plutonium and putting it back into the reactor, a power plant could generate thousands of megawatt hours of additional power.
This is not just theoretical. In England, for example, virtually every speck of waste that comes out of the nation’s nineteen nuclear reactors is harvested for plutonium and then put back to use. The process has been so effective that the British actually began accepting waste from other countries, like Japan and Switzerland, extracting their plutonium and then shipping it back to be burned. In Japan, the results have been so lucrative that the government is opening its own reprocessing facility. Likewise, in Germany, where nuclear power is being phased out by the government, those plants still in service not only can reprocess their waste; until very recently, they were required to. And last year, the French government renewed its commitment to reprocessing as well.
If the U.S. nuclear industry were simply to join these countries, the benefits would be instantaneous. First, since every gram of “waste” currently waiting for Yucca Mountain contains at least some plutonium, the decision to harvest that waste could instantly eliminate the 132-million-pound backlog waiting for Yucca to open. With the stroke of a pen, virtually every gram of the nation’s spent fuel could be moved from the “waste” column into the “fuel” column. Perhaps even more important, the energy recovered from that “waste” would provide a windfall of power: hundreds of millions of megawatt hours, or enough to meet the entire country’s electrical needs for years.
Why is the United States determined not to reprocess fuel, choosing instead to put thousands of pounds of plutonium into a scrap heap? The answer, like so many things in the nuclear debate, has more to do with fear than reason. The decision to ban reprocessing, it turns out, emerged in the 1970s from a concern that plutonium, which can also be used to make a nuclear bomb, might be difficult to keep away from terrorists. What seems not to have registered is the reality that the U.S. government already sits on thousands of pounds of military plutonium, which it has guarded without incident at least since the Nagasaki bombing of August 1945. In fact, the government currently sits on so much plutonium that it is preparing to reduce its stockpile by…giving it to nuclear-power plants for fuel. The fact that those plants already own enough plutonium to fire their plants for years, and that using their own plutonium would save them millions of dollars in waste-storage costs, providing untold wattage of electrical power even while eliminating the backlog for Yucca Mountain, gets lost in the shuffle because, well, plutonium is scary and we shouldn’t keep it around. Even though we already do.
This is not to say that reprocessing would render Yucca Mountain completely obsolete. Even after the waste is reprocessed and the plutonium removed, all the other by-products like cesium and strontium must still be stored for the long term. Countries that reprocess fuel have not yet found an ideal way to do this, encountering many of the same storage problems the U.S. faces at Yucca Mountain. But at least in those countries the “waste” really is waste, whereas the American “waste” is wasteful in itself—and raises a special conundrum all its own: By the year 2012, the volume of “waste” in line for Yucca Mountain will exceed the available space inside Yucca Mountain. As Michael Voegele told me when I visited, “Yucca Mountain will be full the day she opens. Every space is already accounted for.”
AS THE NUCLEAR PUZZLE continues to challenge us, many of these policies are on track to collide, creating second- and third-generation problems. Without new nuclear plants, for example, the American power supply will not simply remain as it is; as time passes and nuclear plants grow older, we will have to choose between extending licenses to those plants, far beyond their intended life expectancy, or else closing them and increasing our dependence on fossil fuels. Similarly, without a long-term repository for our waste, we must prepare for the reality that our temporary facilities, scattered among those aging power plants, are growing older, too—increasing the likelihood of a waste-related leak or spill, and then, even greater public fear of the plants. Finally, without the option to recycle our waste, we must continue to harvest new uranium from the ground, but the volume of uranium deposits in the United States is dwindling, and a series of ill-considered policies over the past twenty years have all but wiped out the American uranium miner. In mines from the Colorado Plateau to the Wyoming plains, I repeatedly found miners struggling with the government’s decision in the early 1990s to buy Soviet uranium and liquidate its own stockpile, which flooded the market (already struggling after TMI and a post–Cold War ebb in weapons spending) and drove nearly every American uranium company out of business. Today most of the world’s biggest known uranium reserves are in Canada, Australia, and…Kazakhstan. As one American uranium miner told me when I visited his floundering operation on the Gulf Coast, “It would be a shame to wean ourselves from foreign oil, only to become dependent on foreign uranium.”
At the same time, the stalemate at Yucca Mountain is quickly compounding: Over the past decade, a host of nuclear companies have lost faith in the project and have begun filing lawsuits against the federal government, asking to be compensated for the cost of storing their own waste. Some of those companies have already received millions of dollars in settlement fees, and over the next decade, other suits may result in hundreds of millions of dollars more—creating a somewhat bizarre contradiction for taxpayers, who are on the one hand paying millions of dollars to build Yucca Mountain and, at the same time, paying millions of dollars not to.
And yet, like so much of the nuclear-policy debate, none of this reflects on the potential of nuclear technology itself.
It reflects on us.
When the United States is determined not to recycle fuel, we pay for that policy every day in rising utility bills, yet most of us neither know nor care about the massive untapped energy source hidden in our pile of “waste.”
When Harry Reid insists on radiation limits at Yucca Mountain that make the repository impossible to open, most of us nod in silent agreement, yet the risk becomes immeasurably higher for more than half of all Americans, who live within fifty miles of a plant, their water supply flowing past toxic waste every day.
When a meltdown like Three Mile Island scares us blind, creating an apocalyptic mythology about what happened there, we pay for our superstitions with sulfur fumes, global warming, and acid rain—our suicide pact with coal.
And when we fail to consider each of these issues with reason instead of fear, when we fail to make the tough comparison between nuclear power, with its potential for disaster, and coal plants, with their guarantee of it, this isn’t a reflection that we have no choices but that we refuse to make them.
It may be, more than anything else, an example of democracy working and failing at the same time.