Essays - Autumn 2007

The Trojan War

Now even some environmentalists are supporting the use of nuclear power to generate electricity. One man’s story suggests the industry can’t be trusted

By William Nichols | September 1, 2007
Trojan Nuclear Power Plant (Photo by Flickr user Tobin)
Trojan Nuclear Power Plant (Photo by Flickr user Tobin)


My relationship with the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant’s cooling tower, which stood for more than 30 years beside the Columbia River in northwestern Oregon, ended on May 21, 2006, when the tower was imploded into rubble. I know now that the giant, hyperbolically curved tower I first saw from a train on the other side of the Columbia River was gray. But in my memory the tower appears to glow brick red, and to dwarf the mountains of Oregon’s Coast Range in the background. Built from 40,500 cubic yards of concrete, the tower rose 499 feet above the riverbank, and its destruction was meant to be a moment of high nuclear drama. Portland General Electric (PGE), the utility that operated the plant from 1975 until it was shut down in 1993, was supposedly signaling its final surrender in Oregon’s expensive “Trojan War” over commercial nuclear power. The Oregonian’s banner headline the following day read “Bye-bye Trojan: Tower is blasted into history.”

But I’m skeptical. For me, the dramatic demolition was a reminder of a day when I ran away from that cooling tower in the spring of 1981. I was living on the Oregon coast then with my family, while I tried to write a book about the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant. On that cool spring day I decided to run along the beach at low tide from Tolovana Park to Hug Point and back, some seven miles roundtrip, in an outfit that consisted of scarlet silk long johns, a pair of bright green running shorts, a green sweatshirt, and a green baseball cap with golden wings protruding to the side and back.

Northern Oregon beaches were seldom crowded in the spring, and on the day I made that run, more spectacularly attired than I had ever been before, they seemed deserted. I can’t remember seeing a single person. The solitary sign that I was making an important fashion statement came as I turned at Hug Point to head back home: I was attacked by a gull. While it followed me, diving and screeching, I couldn’t tell if it was more offended by my winged hat or my red tights.

If I had run north from Tolovana Park instead of heading south toward Hug Point, my chances of meeting appreciative observers would have increased exponentially. I would have been running toward the town of Cannon Beach, and on the southwest end of town is Haystack Rock, a large monolith that attracts a lot of attention. On almost any day without rain there are likely to be people gathered at low tide next to this huge rock to observe the sea birds that nest on it, as well as the many fascinating creatures in its tidal pools. Past Haystack Rock, almost to Ecola Creek on the north side of Cannon Beach, is a stretch of sand to which William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition led a party of 11, including the Shoshone woman, Sacajawea, and Clark’s slave, York, on a two-day journey from their winter quarters, Fort Clatsop. When they found what they were looking for, a whale that had washed ashore, local Indians had already harvested its oil and blubber. Nevertheless, Clark recorded his estimate that the whale had measured 105 feet in its happier days at sea.

I ran south that day in 1981, away from the town, the rock, and thoughts of Clark’s failed whaling expedition, partly because I was fed up with civilization and its cooling towers. I can say without being melodramatic that I was fleeing the Trojan Nuclear Plant’s cooling tower, which rose some 50 miles northeast of the beach where I was running. I had spent the year trying to learn enough to write a book about what it meant. I had come to see the cooling tower as one of the most sensible things about commercial nuclear power, but an accident almost two years earlier at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania had temporarily put cooling towers up there with mushroom clouds as symbols of nuclear danger. And as I thought about the difficulties I’d encountered during the year, trying to talk with people at PGE who ran Oregon’s only nuke, this particular tower had come to seem a personal affront. The people at PGE had begun to treat me as an enemy in Oregon’s Trojan War, and they brushed me aside like a pesky mosquito.

Being pushed aside by nuclear bureaucracies has long been a family hardship. After World War II ended, punctuated by the two nuclear explosions in Japan, my father left his job at the Swan Island shipyard on the Willamette River and moved up the Columbia River to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington. He kept records on construction projects, probably working with some of the people who made plutonium for the atomic bomb we dropped on Nagasaki in August of 1945. The rest of our family stayed in Portland, and sometime in the winter of 1947, I took a train ride to visit Dad for a weekend. I remember the uniformed guards, the high wire fences, the heavily chlorinated water, and the stark landscape. It was a place with the feel of a military base or a prison. The afternoon before I returned to Portland, Dad and I went fishing. Even down by the Columbia River, where we got not a nibble in water I learned many years later had been polluted with high-level radioactive waste, I felt a sense of being watched. In late spring of that year, Dad suddenly resigned from his job and came home.

He was out of work for more than a year and spent much of his time at Portland’s main public library writing essays about business. His essays weren’t published, and I can’t find them now. They probably revealed no secrets, although he must have known a few, but they surely expressed his conviction that the sloppy workmanship and irresponsibility he found at Hanford are the inevitable result whenever private business gets mixed up with big government. When he talked with friends about his decision to resign and come home, he told stories of engineers who questioned designs or the quality of materials and were promptly fired or transferred. Now I realize he was talking about carelessness and arrogance blanketed in governmental secrecy, a theme as timely as the current skirmishes in our “global war on terror.” He was probably saying too that if the bosses wouldn’t listen to engineers, they certainly wouldn’t pay attention to him.

In the summer of 1961, when I was working for a construction company in Portland, my boss took me aside one day to talk about my father. Maybe I had said something that hinted at my growing skepticism about Dad’s politics, because my boss looked me in the eye pretty intensely, as though daring me to show a sign of youthful, cocksure certitude. He said that Al Nichols was a man committed to doing things right and claimed he’d seen my quiet, cautious father get very angry when he ran into careless work. “Your father,” he said, “takes it very personally.” This one-sided conversation made me wonder what Dad might have said to people at the nuclear reservation when he resigned.

My father died in 1986, before the public learned of leaks at Hanford from underground storage tanks for high-level radioactive waste or the continuing possibility of explosions in those tanks or the intentional releases of radioactive iodine from Hanford that got into the local milk supply or the massive radioactive contamination of the Columbia River or the dangerous radiation exposures of workers. But he wouldn’t have been surprised by those revelations. He might have said what I’ve come to believe is true, that such atrocities are inevitable in the making of modern war, but he would have emphasized the dangers in carelessness too. Reflecting on the wastefulness and irresponsibility he saw at Hanford seemed to drive him politically to the right during the years after he resigned.

My mother had a gentle spirit and spent much of her adult life caring for sick relatives and friends. She grew up in a working-class, Democratic home, and her father, a union man, drove a city bus. As a married woman, my mother became a conservative Republican along with my father. Her younger sister, Virginia, took political positions well to the right of my mother’s, and for several years she and my Uncle George worked for the late Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia. Falwell is the man who, having said the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were a result of God’s anger at feminists, homosexuals, abortion rights supporters, and civil liberties activists, later sought to soften his indictment by saying it was “ill-timed.”

A psychoanalyst might say I was fleeing my extended family as well as civilization and its cooling towers on that day in 1981, and there would be some truth in this therapeutic view of the matter. But the 2006 dynamiting of Trojan’s cooling tower got my full attention as a political act. The dramatic, well-publicized destruction of the tower was meant to symbolize the end of years of conflict between PGE and those who opposed commercial nuclear power in Oregon. However, cooling towers should be the least of anyone’s worries. We still don’t have a safe repository for the radioactive waste stored in the Trojan’s spent-fuel pool. There continue to be important questions about the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, although we’ve spent $9 billion in developing it, and the Bush administration requested $494.5 million more for 2008, an increase of $49 million from 2007. Unexpected radioactive isotopes have been found in nuclear plants’ cooling systems, causing long-term radiation hazards much greater than anyone anticipated when the industry planned to encase such plants in concrete after they go out of service. Concrete entombment won’t be effective unless the most dangerous materials are removed, and much of that work will have to be done with expensive robotic technology. The decommissioning process is sure to produce large amounts of additional high-level nuclear waste because the equipment used for disassembling the reactor will be bombarded by radioactivity. Decommissioning nuclear power plants is much more difficult than toppling cooling towers, and the industry is not prepared to do it properly.

And then, of course, there’s the vulnerability of nuclear reactors and spent-fuel pools to accidents, earthquakes, and terrorist attacks. Recent earthquake damage to the largest nuclear facility in existence, Japan’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, built to be nearly earthquake proof, makes one wonder about the safety of plants all over the world, especially those not designed to withstand earthquakes. The 1986 accident at Chernobyl, a result of flawed reactor design and badly trained operators, contaminated almost 20 square miles with radioactive isotopes, some with half-lives of tens of thousands of years. Well-placed explosives would turn a reactor or a spent-fuel pool into a “dirty bomb” that could cause many thousands of deaths and render a wide landscape uninhabitable for a similarly long time. One grim reminder of this danger occurred on September 11, 2001, when the four terrorist-piloted airliners passed near some 12 nuclear power plants on their way toward their symbolic targets.

On a clear day in mid-April of 1981, a week or so after my scarlet-legged jog on Oregon’s north coast, I interviewed the president of PGE. After several months of unanswered letters and phone calls, I had mailed PGE management a draft of a short essay I’d written about their closed-door policy, and the company’s general counsel called to say the list of employees I’d asked to interview about their nuclear plant was inadequate: William Lindblad, the company’s president, was the person I needed to meet. As I walked into Lindblad’s office, the plume from the Trojan nuclear plant’s cooling tower, some 35 miles northwest of Portland, was visible through the window. The office resembled a tastefully appointed chapel—the furniture simple, the view through the window as colorful as stained glass. Lindblad himself, tall and severe in a dark suit, might have been a Puritan minister, his faith in nuclear technology angry and deep. He had, as it turned out, no intention of revealing anything about Trojan; instead, he meant to convince me that my effort to tell its story might be an unpardonable sin.

Commercial nuclear power was blessed at its birth with the hope-filled metaphor of beating swords into plowshares, but it was soon apparent to people who thought about it that nuclear plowshares couldn’t be fully separated from those deadly swords and the secrecy they demanded. Commercial nuclear power, after all, grew out of the Manhattan Project, which was such a big secret that Vice President Truman didn’t learn about it until after President Roosevelt died, and the connection between commercial nuclear power and nuclear weapons has never been completely broken. Today, the federal government is encouraging domestic utilities to build nuclear plants, although, for almost three decades, building them wasn’t considered a sound investment. Dangerous uranium mining has also become a growth industry again. At the same time, our leaders have been hinting at the possibility of going to war if Iran persists in processing its own nuclear fuel because it’s a relatively short step from mastering the nuclear fuel cycle to building nuclear weapons.

William Lindblad spent most of an afternoon explaining why my version of the Trojan story would be a disservice to humanity. Convincing someone who was more than 10 months into a writing project to drop it is not very different from suggesting to an avid skier who has carried his skis far up a beautiful slope on foot to shoulder those skis and trudge back down, but Lindblad tried. He began by telling me of an experience in California when he was a manager at the controversial Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. A television producer asked him about doing a show on the Diablo Canyon plant, and Lindblad said he was too busy to help. A colleague, however, thought it was wrong to send the producer away, and he cooperated. The result was a television show that led to several lawsuits. His colleague, Lindblad said, left the industry, disillusioned because his integrity had been challenged.

“I’ve deliberately tried to give you nothing quotable,” Lindblad said as the afternoon wore on, “but here is something: the accident at Three Mile Island is still going on.” Lindblad left his statement hanging in the air as a measure of my inability to plumb the mysteries of nuclear power. Perhaps he meant to say simply this: the accident at Three Mile Island had led to fear and misunderstanding, which two years later were crippling the nuclear industry financially.

The ultimate proof that I could not be trusted to tell this story, Lindblad went on, was my choice of subject. Inevitably, I would have an ax to grind because I assumed nuclear power plants were different from other technologies.

To me, the stakes do seem higher for nuclear technology than for most other things humans have built. Humans tend to make errors, and one nuclear error can produce a catastrophe. I was trying to make a point that Jon Gertner later made in The New York Times Magazine on July 16, 2006: “Nuclear power plants are arguably the most complicated machines in the history of civilization.” To suggest my balanced view of such matters, I added that I was skeptical of claims made for other high technologies as well.

“What is high technology?” Lindblad thundered.

I mumbled something about complexity, dependence on advanced scientific knowledge, initially large capital investment, and expensive maintenance.

Peering sternly over his glasses, Lindblad corrected me: for him the cockpit of a DC-10 was high technology, not the control room of a nuclear power plant. High technology, he insisted, was in the eye of the beholder, and if I thought the Trojan plant was high tech, that was reason enough to write about something else. This, as it turned out, was PGE’s final negotiating position in 1981, and I retired from the field of battle a few weeks later to watch from a distance as Enron acquired PGE in 1997 and PGE regained its independence in 2006, after Enron’s collapse.

In 2005, Gregory Nipper, a graduate student at Portland State University, wrote a fine master’s thesis about Trojan, “Progress and Economy: The Clash of Values over Oregon’s Trojan Nuclear Plant.” Nipper’s concluding sentence made good sense to me:

The systematic failure of utilities, contractors, regulatory agencies, and government officials to adequately guard the public interest in the case of Trojan is a salient example of the need for extensive and informed popular involvement in decision making in all arenas and at all levels of politics and society—especially when the consequences involved the health, security, and well-being of the people and the environment.

It did my heart good to compare the young historian’s Jeffersonian conclusion with a statement made by PGE’s nuclear information specialist, Bill Babcock, when I told him that if I wrote the Trojan story well, it might provide an important kind of public education:

I think it is impossible to inform the public well about nuclear power. It is totally impossible because to inform the public, you’d have to educate them to a certain level, and I don’t think you can do that. The schools can’t do it. People will accept nuclear power when they perceive that they understand it. It has nothing to do with really understanding it. It’s the way they perceive they understand what dying in a car accident is like and therefore accept that risk.

To Babcock, Lindblad, and the rest of PGE, apparently, having a skeptic tell the story of their nuclear plant was like inviting Ralph Nader to write an inside history of the Ford Motor Company. And although I published fragments of the story in the years that followed, I essentially surrendered.

I felt wronged when the people at PGE refused to let me talk with their employees at the Trojan plant. And once PGE management decided I wasn’t their friend, I could only be their enemy, which turned out to be sort of true. But there is a nice irony: the environmentalists who went to court to keep PGE from building the seven additional nuclear plants they were planning in 1973, two years before the completion of Trojan, may have saved the company from bankruptcy. That is the lesson I take from the story of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) across the Columbia River from Trojan. WPPSS (locally pronounced WHOOPS) had five nuclear plants under construction after 1975, projects that led to a huge financial collapse and the loss of many millions of dollars, much of it absorbed by taxpayers.

It may be that the dangers implicit in nuclear power were intensified within the United States when we went commercial too quickly. Physicist Freeman Dyson, who participated in some of the early research on reactor design, suggested in Disturbing the Universe (1979) that nuclear technology was taken out of the hands of scientists much too quickly and entrusted to accountants and managers. “We are left,” Dyson says, “with a very small number of reactor types, each of them frozen into a huge bureaucratic organization that makes any substantial change impossible, each of them less safe than many possible alternative designs which have been discarded.” The Bush administration has spent $200 million since 2001 on developing designs for the “next generation” of reactors, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved three new reactor designs. Because of technological improvements such as fiber optics that will replace miles of control cable, all are likely to be safer and cheaper to build than several types now in use. In addition, standardization of design will increase safety, economy, and speed of construction. But the approved designs are still vulnerable to sabotage, and the safe storage of spent fuel is still a problem.

Inadequate security has been another result of rushing to wed nuclear power too quickly with profits. U.S. companies have worked hard to give the impression that nuclear technology is safe. But unlike France, where 75 percent of electricity is generated in nuclear plants and the military is involved in providing security, American power companies rely for protection on private security agencies of varying competence. Attempting to separate commercial nuclear power from nuclear weapons, the Bush administration has taken to speaking of “civilian nuclear power.” In 1957, with the Price Anderson Act, Congress acknowledged that private insurance companies were unwilling to take on the risk of a nuclear accident. (Cost estimates for the Chernobyl accident, so far, run over $350 billion.) Price Anderson provides both liability insurance and limits on nuclear liability. In addition, the Bush administration now offers as incentives to build new nuclear plants $500 million risk insurance for construction delays on the first two plants and $250 million on the next four.

The Bush administration is not alone in pushing for more nuclear power plants. Some environmentalists, convinced that climate change is the greatest single danger faced by civilization, have begun to argue that nuclear power is the only source of energy that can support development in poorer countries without contributing to disastrous global warming. The correlation between electricity consumption and improving health, education, and economic prosperity makes this a powerful argument. Although Greenpeace usa, the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund, and other environmental groups continue to press for conservation and renewable energy while opposing nuclear power, the late Hugh Montefiore of Friends of the Earth and Patrick Moore, cofounder of Greenpeace, as well as James Lovelock, whose “Gaia” hypothesis posits Earth as a superorganism, have all made the case for nuclear power.

Maybe we have to admit we’ve backed ourselves into a corner, and only nuclear power can save civilization. But such a conclusion seems desperate. It imagines “progress” that can only be energy-intensive industrialization and dismisses the increasing inclination among conservationists to strengthen efficient local economies. It takes for granted the end of conservation well before we have learned to protect the earth we “borrowed from our children,” as a Haida Indian proverb puts it. And it rests our children’s future on a dangerous technology before we have learned the humility and disciplined care nuclear power demands. Imagining the consequences of a rejuvenated commercial nuclear power industry in the United States, I’d be tempted to pull on those scarlet long johns and start to run—if there were anywhere left to go.

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