Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico

February 29, 2004 Sunday

Nuclear Experts Are Used to Disagreeing

John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer

Rod Krich is the sort of guy who likes to get to the airport early.

It's an engineer's way of thinking -- what's the worst problem that can reasonably be expected to occur, and how can I make sure it doesn't make me miss my plane?

In Krich's case, it's a nuclear engineer's way of thinking. As the lead nuclear engineer in Louisiana Energy Services' effort to win a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license for a uranium enrichment plant, Krich has become a familiar face in New Mexico over the last several months.

At this point in the process, the hypothetical worst problem for Krich and his colleagues comes not in the form of a nuclear accident, but in the person of Don Hancock.

Head of the Nuclear Waste Safety Project at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, Hancock has proven himself a formidable adversary for large nuclear projects in New Mexico.

Hancock's views sound at first blush like Krich's, but with a twist. Where Krich believes there are engineering solutions to prevent those worst-case scenarios, Hancock thinks the best way to avoid them is to not build nuclear facilities in the first place.

Working out of a cluttered office in a converted two-story house across the alley from the Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque's university area, Hancock has led three decades of opposition to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad.

Five years after WIPP's opening, the public debate over its operations has quieted, but Hancock and his allies continue to wage a rear-guard action, scrutinizing the Department of Energy's every move.

The same sort of debate is shaping up over LES' proposed uranium enrichment plant. Hancock is convinced it is a dangerously bad idea, and once again radioactive waste is at the center of the debate.

A broad distrust

LES wants to store steel cylinders of radioactive waste on a concrete pad to be built behind its factory. Company officials say there are several options for its eventual disposal, including turning it over to the federal government or a private company.

But they acknowledge that the government does not have the facilities to take the waste, and there is no private company in this country capable of handling it.

That makes Hancock and others fear that the waste could be left in New Mexico forever.

Krich believes the waste is safe. Hancock thinks it is a danger.

Like many in the nuclear industry, Krich believes the public has a disproportionate fear of radiation. One likely explanation, he and others believe, is that the general public first learned about things nuclear with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Added to that is a broad distrust because of safety assurances from the government and nuclear scientists early in the nuclear age that turned out not to be true, said Tom Cochran, a physicist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group in Washington, D.C.

Krich acknowledges that sloppy operations in the early days of the nuclear age led to radiation exposures, creating a perception of fear on the part of the public that still dogs his industry.

"We, the nuclear industry, did some of this to ourselves," Krich said.

Cochran acknowledges that some members of the public have an irrational fear of radiation. But the fact that they are irrational makes the fears no less real, and they have a crucial influence on decisions about nuclear facilities, regardless of their basis.

Seeking a specific plan

Cochran said the nuclear industry has found a way to get past those fears, noting that there are more than 100 operating nuclear power plants in this country.

"They weren't shut down by these 'irrational fears,' '' Cochran said. "I think these things get settled."

Roger Nelson, WIPP's chief scientist, disagrees, noting that not a single new nuclear power plant has been built in this country in more than two decades.

The way nuclear debates are settled in our country often entails enormous costs in safety measures that are disproportionate to the risks, Nelson said.

An inordinate fear of radiation on the part of the public leads to tremendously expensive safety measures that amount to regulatory overkill, according to Nelson. That has made nuclear power plants so expensive that no one can afford to build a new one, turning to coal and natural gas plants instead.

Ultimately, according to Texas A&M University political scientist Hank Jenkins-Smith, nuclear debates are settled through the give and take between the nuclear establishment and activists like Hancock.

Members of the public, he said, tend to distrust government and big institutions like the nuclear industry. They come to rely on people like Hancock to act as their eyes and ears, scrutinizing the technical details of nuclear operations on their behalf.

Jenkins-Smith, who used to be on the faculty of the University of New Mexico and has studied public attitudes toward WIPP, said Hancock's opposition, therefore, was in fact critical to WIPP's success.

"We know that there are these nerve ends that are out there attentively watching," he said. "He plays a really important role here."

Krich and his LES colleagues have recognized Hancock's importance. While they are sometimes critical of his views, they also speak respectfully of him. And they meet with him regularly.

What they are hearing from Hancock is this complaint -- the plant is being built without a clear plan for the disposal of its waste.

Hancock disputes the need for the plant. But if it is going to be built, he said in an interview, it should not be permitted until LES comes up with a specific plan for dealing with the waste.

He cited a long history in the United States of building major nuclear projects and leaving the question of what to do with the waste for later.

"The waste needs to be taken care of on the front end," Hancock said.