When a group of activists gained access to private papers from NSP's lawsuit against Westinghouse, they got a rare look at one of the nuclear industry's most serious problems.

According to the records, the metal tubing gave way at 2:13 p.m. A gash two inches long and half an inch wide burst open along a pipe carrying highly pressurized radioactive water, which proceeded to spew forth at close to 400 gallons a minute. At 2:33, someone picked up the "Red Phone" to notify the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of an accident at the Prairie Island nuclear plant.

Outside, things remained quiet with the exception of the cars streaming down the road as employees left the premises. Word that something might be wrong at the plant spread slowly from a bar until the rumor reached a radio station. The governor held a news conference at 5:30, announcing he had no idea what was going on.

The date was October 2, 1979, seven months after the near-catastrophe at Three Mile Island and seven years before the meltdown at Chernobyl. The incident at Prairie Island was comparatively trifling--a single rupture in the tubing of the plant's steam generator, which turns heat from the core into steam to power turbines. "All safeguards equipment functioned as required," Northern States Power told the NRC. Radioactivity was released into the air and the Mississippi River, but not at doses the government considered dangerous. Prairie Island was back on line in less than a month.

But almost 17 years later, the steam generator trouble haunts Prairie Island again. In April NSP Chairman and CEO James Howard stepped before shareholders at the company's annual meeting to announce that the utility had reached a settlement in a lawsuit against Westinghouse, which made the plant's four generators. Details about the case, and 16 similar suits nationwide, have been kept under wraps by the efforts of plaintiffs and defendants alike. Some of the documents that have emerged from the thicket of litigation indicate that nuclear plants around the country and the world may be sitting on a time bomb.

According to the papers--many of them never before made public--steam generators at dozens of nuclear plants, including Prairie Island, are deteriorating at an alarming pace. NSP alone has found thousands of cracks in the tubes that connect the reactor's smoldering core to the rest of the plant; some may be leaking radioactivity, and a few have burst. The utility has spent $62 million on repairs, and it has seriously considered replacing the equipment at a cost of at least $200 million more.

The story is the same at dozens of other nuclear plants nationwide, and it's getting worse so fast regulators can't keep up. At a recent NRC meeting, commission Executive Director James Taylor called steam generator degradation "one of the most serious challenges facing the industry today." His staff, he added, hadn't gotten around to writing new rules because they were busy "putting out fires." In a preliminary report presented at the same meeting, NRC researchers warned that under certain accident conditions, "significant radiological releases may occur." That's industryspeak for scenarios ranging all the way from a small radioactive plume over the neighborhood to a meltdown.

Even without a disaster--a possibility which, critics admit, is hard to pin down--the steam generator problem is rich with trouble for the industry, with a particular irony for NSP. "You'll remember how they told us [during the nuclear-waste fight in the 1994 legislative session] that Prairie Island is the most wonderful plant in the world," says Ken Tilsen, who's fought a local environmental group's court battle to win access to the documents. "Except that [they claim in the lawsuit] that the product is defective and they've been defrauded, lied to, and cheated over 25 to 30 years. And at the same time they tell the public that they've got the greatest plant that was ever built."

Bruce Drew has looked through 30,000 pages of documents over the last year or so, and that's only about half of the stash he's accrued. Steam generator papers have taken over the dining room of his south Minneapolis house--crowding hutches, spilling off credenzas, piled on every chair and tabletop. Drew worked as a chemical engineer and statistician until he retired a few years back. Now the NSP discovery project has become a full-time job. It's taught him, he says, more than he wanted to know about the innards of a nuclear plant--and, along the way, about what it takes to pry internal information out of a power company.

NSP filed its suit against Westinghouse in federal district court in St. Paul in the fall of 1993; close on its heels was the antinuclear Prairie Island Coalition, demanding "intervenor" status in the case--in other words, access to the documents the plaintiff and defendant were exchanging in discovery. There have been such requests in other such lawsuits around the country, and all have been rebuffed. But in mid-1994, U.S. Magistrate Franklin Noel granted the coalition's request.

When Drew and three other coalition representatives showed up seven months later for their first appointment at Prairie Island, they were told that half their group was prohibited from setting foot in the plant. The matter went back to court, and eventually a bizarre ritual evolved. Each day for more than a year, coalition members would show up in a special room at the downtown St. Paul offices of NSP's law firm. Boxes of documents would be brought in, which they'd peruse and mark for copying; often, NSP then declared the papers confidential. The coalition went back to court five more times, and the matter soon drew attention in high places. The giants of the international nuclear industry--France's Framatome, Germany's Siemens, and Canada's Babcock & Wilcox--all sent representatives to St. Paul to argue that the documents should be sealed. Noel ruled against all of them.

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