NUCLEAR POWER'S DIRTY SECRET

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.

At NSP--whose CEO, Howard, once said he didn't think nuclear power had an economic future--things haven't reached that point: Company executives insist that Prairie Island still provides some of the cheapest power in its system. But the steam generator price tag isn't insignificant either: Pearson calculates that the company spends about $2 million every 18 months on repairs and inspections. And NSP recently picked up a whole new set of cracking generators when it merged with Wisconsin Electric Power Co., operator of the Point Beach nuclear plant. The utility is allowed to recoup most of the money for repairs through increases in electricity prices; the company says it will pass the savings from the settlement with Westinghouse on to consumers, but since precise figures aren't public that claim can't be verified.

One theory holds that Westinghouse has been willing to settle with power companies--none of the 17 steam generator suits against it has gone to trial--because it must keep open one of the few markets left for its nuclear division. As prospects for new reactor sales in the U.S. grow dim, manufacturers are left with only two options: selling abroad (a few Asian countries, notably China, have aggressive nuclear energy programs), and selling replacement parts such as new steam generators. As a Westinghouse spokesman offered in the company's sole pronouncement on the NSP settlement, the utility was "a valued customer, and we prefer not to fight with valued customers in court."

Thus, while Westinghouse and the power companies may be at each other's throats in court, they share a fundamental interest--diverting public scrutiny of the steam generator problem. "This litigation is harmful to utilities," a Westinghouse executive warned in a 1993 letter to the Tennessee Valley Authority. "For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists has used the litigation as a vehicle to incorrectly imply that steam generator issues pose health and safety risks to the public. This message has been communicated to the media and to legislators serving in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

"If the current litigation process proceeds through the public trial stage, we will have created a platform for those opposed to nuclear power to unfairly attack both the safety and economics of operating nuclear power plants. The public spectacle that steam generator trials will create will further threaten the nuclear power option for the future of our nation."

Right now, it doesn't look as if the public will get much of a spectacle out of the NSP case. The utility abruptly and unilaterally terminated the Prairie Island Coalition's discovery in January, saying the allotted time had run out. Magistrate Noel rejected that idea and slapped the utility with a $2,000 fine. Yet by March, NSP won a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge James Rosenbaum that even the possibility of a settlement made further discovery "moot." The coalition, he said, couldn't even get documents NSP had been ordered to release almost a year before. The group is fighting that ruling in the Eighth District Court of Appeals.

Even without the 14,000-or-so pages it's still trying to get, the coalition has its work cut out. Most of its 60,000-page cache has yet to be reviewed in any detail; a troupe of volunteers expect to be at it for at least the rest of the year.

It's hard to say what they'll find. Many of the documents reviewed so far are highly technical and routine in nature, day-to-day notations of industrial practice. Two years in, Drew says he's only beginning to see the outlines of a bigger picture. "The overwhelming sense you get is of a huge industry dealing with a very dangerous technology which they're working very hard to keep from going awry--and at the same time working very hard to keep the public from knowing that they have to work so hard to keep it from going awry. And I wonder when it's going to catch up with them. I think it'll be during my lifetime." He's 72.

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