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."

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Darrin Hostetler