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."
Before there was any potential for overheating, Brown said there would have to be an impossible scenario.
"Both diesel generators would have to be knocked out. In order to get into the plant to do that, you have to get inside a protective area. It's built like a military base."
Brown went on to describe ring after ring of defensive perimeter that would have to be breached in order to reach the generators.
"It would take a military-style operation," said Brown.
The possibility of it happening inadvertently, according to Brown, was one in ten or twenty million.
Five minutes after Brown hung up the telephone he called back. He'd forgotten to mention one other thing.
"If both generators were out and power was lost to the reactor controls, the system at Palo Verde is built so that the [fuel] rods will separate. That's the other feature the guy [Shackelton] neglected to mention. A nuclear meltdown just wouldn't happen."
Why then would the federal government fan such nuclear hysteria?
The authorities already have enough particulars to guarantee jail time if the indicted are convicted. The Earth First! people have been charged with two destructive attacks at the Fairfield Snowbowl (one of which allegedly caused $100,000 worth in damage), as well as a raid on the power lines at a Grand Canyon uranium mine. Why pump up this list of criminal activity with the thought that a radioactive cloud might engulf Phoenix?
One answer is obvious.
Given enough room for discussion and debate, the public might listen to explanations behind the destruction of private property. This is, after all, a nation whose history began with colonists dumping a fortune in British tea into the Boston harbor.
But tea-leaf terrorism is different from nuclear sabotage.
The image of a meltdown rings with the clarity of a gavel silencing the innocent.
When reached in Washington, D.C., the spokesman for the NRC, Greg Cook, was well aware of the Earth First! court case but refused to discuss the upcoming trial.
"I am familiar with the statement [Shackelton's], but we are not going to get very far along this line . . . I'm going to sidestep the entire topic," said Cook. "I would say we're aware of the issue. One federal agency does tend to communicate with another."
The question is whether or not one federal agency, the NRC, pitched in to help a second federal agency, the FBI, make a case against a federal target, Earth First!, by raising the specter of a radioactive holocaust.
The question recalls a speech given in New York in 1989 by the co-founder of Earth First!, Dave Foreman:
"Back in the '70s, the FBI issued a memo to all their field officers, telling them that when you are trying to break up a dissident group, don't worry if you have any evidence or facts. Just go in, make a big arrest, make wild charges, have a press conference, and that's what the media's going to pick up. That's the news story. The damage to the group is done. You can always drop the charges against them later. That's no problem; it almost invariably gets less attention in the press."
Last week, the prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Roslyn Moore-Silver, declined to comment upon the case. She did say that the Owen Shackelton document would not figure in the upcoming trial.
To be continued
Since the largest nuclear plant in America is run by Arizona Public Service, comfort through logic is no comfort at all.
Why would the federal government fan such nuclear hysteria?
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.