IMAGINING A

MELTDOWN

Last week Owen Shackelton Jr., an investigator with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), refused to be interviewed. Referring all questions to an NRC publicist, Shackelton said it was a matter of policy.

The NRC inspector was not nearly so reticent when it came to talking to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Shackelton is the source of a terrifying FBI memo. The document portrays the vandalism of transmission lines from the Palo Verde nuke plant as an event that could have triggered a "China syndrome," a meltdown.

Based upon this information, the U.S. Attorney's Office moved to deny bail to the five Earth First! militants arrested in May 1989.

Charged with three counts, including "conspiracy to sabotage a nuclear facility," the government alleged that the members of Earth First! had plotted to topple a Palo Verde transmission tower. Echoing Shackelton's position, the government told the court to deny bail because " . . . these lines are used to provide electricity to the nuclear coolant pumps. Although there are back-up generators to provide the electricity for the coolant pumps, these have failed to operate at times during testing. If these generators failed when all of the electric lines are cut down, there would have been a possible release of radiation and severe risk to public health."

This is frightening business.
Everyone is aware of varying degrees of lawlessness.
If you are Chuy Higuera, a recently disgraced former legislator who adds to his resume by shoplifting nasal spray, you are one sort of reprobate. Though Higuera was pictured handcuffed on the front page of every paper in the state, no one confused him with a child molester.

If you are the sort of strident environmentalist who will disrupt logging operations of ancient redwoods by breaking the law as you chain yourself to a tree, we know what you are. But if you are the sort of mad individual who would trigger a nuclear disaster similar to Chernobyl, there is very little to discuss indeed.

Or as the government put it when it sought unsuccessfully to keep Dave Foreman, Mark Davis, Ilse Asplund, Margaret "Peg" Millett, and Marc Baker confined to prison without opportunity to make bail: "No condition or combination of conditions will reasonably assure the safety of others and the community."

You can try to reassure yourself that the FBI's position is only hyperbole. On a certain common-sense level, it does not seem possible that the nuclear power industry could be so vulnerable. Surely the toppling of a transmission line--the alleged goal of Earth First!--would not instigate a meltdown; wouldn't Palo Verde's owners have a back-up plan in case, say, a plane crashed into a transmission line?

But since the largest nuclear plant in America, Palo Verde, is run by Arizona Public Service Company, comfort through logic is no comfort at all. The giant utility is often equated with incompetence and greed.

Prior to entering the atomic age, APS had a sideline business in the sale of natural gas to homes. It sold off this enterprise following a disastrous string of explosions that maimed customers and incinerated residences. The Palo Verde facility, built upon land owned by relatives of the utility's president, was the victim of enormous cost overruns and delays. Once completed, the plant's operations were so calamitous that federal regulators singled it out for attention and a Washington-based watchdog group of Ralph Nader's selected it as one of the worst-run in the country. Profits from APS have been channeled into a holding company that embarked upon a ruinous binge of financial speculation in the Arizona real estate market that took the giant utility to the brink of bankruptcy while attracting unfavorable national publicity.

American newspapers have never printed a story more likely to pucker the imagination than a conspiracy that linked the management skills of Arizona Public Service with a pack of nuclear terrorists.

The image of Earth First! environmentalists as China syndrome terrorists is one that tends to end all conversation.

Yet that image is simply a matter of hysteria generated by the government.
To begin with, the people arrested never toppled any Palo Verde power line. They only talked about their desire to do that.

The transmission-line damage the NRC's Shackelton discussed occurred in 1986, three years prior to the Earth First! bust.

And according to a man who is responsible for the safety of Palo Verde, Shackelton's comments were nonsense.

Just for argument's sake, let's assume Earth First! partisans were responsible for grounding the transmission lines in 1986. Let's also pretend that three years later in 1989, the Earth First! activists realized their fondest fantasies and actually toppled a transmission line.

Here is what Jim Brown, the electrical engineer assigned to monitor the safety of the Palo Verde nuclear plant for the Arizona Corporation Commission, had to say.

"It was mainly an inconvenience," said Brown, referring to the 1986 incident described by Shackelton. "It was more vandalism than sabotage."

Brown said he was amazed that anyone would suggest that there was even a remote possibility of a meltdown.

"That outage did not hurt anything . . . . The bottom line is there are safety features built in. An interruption will trigger a separation of the plant before there are any ill effects."

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