NUKE PLANT CREASED IN WASHINGTON OPPOSITION HAS LITTLE TIME TO ACT
Tom Owens leans against the gas pump at a convenience mart in Pinetop--a tiny, tree-shaded town on the edge of the Mogollon Rim--and spits a huge glob of tobacco juice on the asphalt. As he fills the tank on his cherry-red pickup, he glares disapprovingly at the clipboard-toting young woman before him.
"Would you like to sign a petition to stop the nuclear plant?" she asks, gingerly offering a pen. Owens grimaces and shakes his head.
"No way," he snarls. "It could bring a lot of jobs into this place. Why do you want to stop jobs?"
It's a sentiment shared by many residents of the tiny burgs that dot the White Mountains area, which has been electrified by reports that an unidentified, out-of-state company is planning to break ground on a nuclear generating station. From Show Low to Snowflake, from Heber to Hawley Lake, word of the plant murmurs and crackles through the pines, igniting hopes that the region's sleepy, tourist-oriented economy may be about to receive an atomic jump-start.
Virtually drooling over the chance to receive the jolt of jobs, which could number more than 2,000 during the plant's construction, it seems that most denizens have quickly adopted the nuclear reactor as their own. And many, like Owens, are more than a little irritated that a small band of locals, urged on by professional, national antinuke activists, has already begun a vocal opposition campaign.
"Why don't you at least wait and find out more about the plant? We don't even know the name of the company that wants to build it yet," Owens says as he gruffly waves the petition-bearer away. "You folks are boxing before the bell rings."
But as the activists are quick to point out, waiting to find out more might play into a corporate strategy designed to short-circuit opposition efforts. According to a little-known 1992 law that works to the advantage of nuclear-plant builders, opponents have to come out swinging--because if they don't score a knockout against the plant in the first round, they may never get another chance.
In the closing days of the Bush administration, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 1992, a measure that, among other things, radically changed the way nuclear power plants are licensed.
Every plant currently operating in the U.S. was granted a license in a two-step process. First, the utility that wanted to build the plant chose a site and held public hearings so that area residents could voice concerns. If the location was deemed safe by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a construction license was granted. Later, prior to starting up the nuclear reactor, hearings had to be held again to deal with safety problems that might have arisen during the building process--which can take from three to ten years. Only then could the NRC grant a final operating license.
Under the new law, however, the licensing procedure has been streamlined. Both the construction and operating permits on any new plants erected during the next century will be granted simultaneously, at the very beginning of the process.
For a company building and operating a nuclear power plant, that's a pretty good deal. Gloria Quinn, a spokeswoman for the Edison Institute, an alliance of utility companies that backed the 1992 law, explains that the new combined license procedure could save plant operators millions.
"When you sink $5 billion into a nuclear plant, the interest on that borrowed money is at least $1 million a day," Quinn says. "You don't want to sit around and hold lengthy hearings after construction before you can get a license to operate, all the while incurring $1 million per day in interest charges.
"Since everything is okayed at the beginning under the new law, there will be no expensive delays before start-up. When you're done building, you're ready to go. It's great for the operating utility."
Perhaps. But as financially soothing as the new law may be for big power companies, it isn't likely to settle the nerves of the people who must live near new nuclear plants like the one planned for the White Mountains. The Washington, D.C.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, whose members testified against the Energy Policy Act, points out that by blocking citizens from raising safety issues after the initial hearings, the law clears the way for utilities to rev up their reactors first and address safety concerns later--if at all.
A spokeswoman for the UCC, Eileen Quinn (no relation to the Edison Institute's Gloria), says "a plant can get the whole approval up front, with no opportunity for citizens to halt start-up of the nuclear facility at any point after construction begins, even if the situation has dramatically changed so that it is no longer safe to operate the plant."
According to UCC nuclear specialist Eric Glitzenstein, who testified before the Senate against the act, the right to a second round of hearings under the old licensing procedure served as an effective check on overzealous, debt-burdened utilities eager to start up plants without first making sure they were safe.
Second hearings have enabled concerned residents to muster the scientific data and public opinion necessary to delay the start-up of at least eight plants over the past 20 years, Glitzenstein says. All eight plants were forced, in the wake of information that was revealed during the hearings, to fix or upgrade plant safety technology that wasn't up to snuff.
"That won't be possible anymore," Eileen Quinn says. "Now you have to raise all your concerns on the front end--which is often an impossibility, because the plant design changes somewhat during construction.
"The residents of the state will be virtually powerless to have input into the plant after the licenses are granted."
Obviously, any attempt to completely block construction on the plant must also be launched well before the dual license is granted. And since the plant can apply for and obtain all the licensing it will need to begin splitting atoms after only one round of hearings--which can be called with only a few weeks' notice--there isn't much time for an antiplant movement to get its act together.
"Under the new system," Quinn adds, "if citizens want to stop the plant altogether, they have to organize and do it very, very early or they likely won't be able to do it at all."
Some Rim-area residents suspect that may be why the company planning to build the new nuclear plant--which would be the nation's first in 15 years--has been keeping the lowest of profiles. Although the story that the plant was in the works broke in the June 15 edition of the White Mountain Independent--and was accented by vague follow-ups in the Arizona Republic and on Valley TV stations--hard information about the plant or its builder has been difficult to come by.
The mystery company did put out a press release July 16 through White Mountain Regional Development, a private firm that is helping to find a site for the plant, saying current plans call for the construction of a 900-megawatt reactor--to be built somewhere within 35 miles north of Show Low--that could supply power to one million homes. But there has been no word on what the next step will be, or even when the company will reveal its name.
Jack Cohen-Joppa, the publisher of the Tucson-based Nuclear Resister Newsletter, says that by focusing on the feel-good mantra of jobs, while remaining vague about crucial details concerning the plant (How will it dispose of radioactive waste? Where will the vast water supply necessary to cool the reactor come from?), company officials are pursuing a shrewd strategy aimed at building public support and laying the groundwork for easy licensing approval.
"They may be trying to generate a warm and fuzzy feeling about jobs, sneak in and, bang, hit these people with a nuclear plant before they really know what is going on," he says. "The way the law is structured, this could be over before people know it, before we've had a chance to really probe what kind of effect the plant could have on the White Mountains.
"But if that's their strategy, they are too late. Some of us are ready for them."
Dan Dandis, the public affairs director of White Mountain Regional Development, denies that the company planning the nuclear plant is readying a sneak attack, saying only that "this company simply doesn't want to alert its competition about what it is doing by providing a lot of details at this stage."
Cohen-Joppa, who has teamed up with two national antinuclear organizations to help advise a so-far small band of residents in its battle against the plant, has encouraged citizens to launch a petition drive and be ready to counter the arguments put forth by plant proponents--when they finally reveal themselves. Already it is clear that the promise of plentiful employment will be the toughest selling point to overcome.
Dorothy Otero, the leader of Citizen's Alliance for a Safe Economy, a Pinetop group of about 40 residents that has been spearheading the antiplant movement, explains that people in the region aren't environmentally shortsighted or gullible, but merely frightened. Otero says that the main reason the populace is ready to sign on to the plant, practically sight unseen, is because one of the region's major employers--a mill that makes pressed boards--may be preparing to lay off at least 100 workers.
"People are scared," she says. "They want to know how they are going to support their families. That's what makes the plant sound so good."
The challenge, Cohen-Joppa says, is to convince people that jobs aren't everything. "A lower quality of life, the threat of being exposed to radiation, these things are important, too," he says. "That's a message that has to be hammered home.
"I can sure understand why small towns want jobs, but I can't believe that people are really willing to embrace a nuclear power plant in their backyards just for a few 9 to 5 slots.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.