Return to Marble Hill
It had been many years since I last visited the Marble Hill nuclear plant site, maybe fifteen. It looked pretty much as I expected it to, rusty and eerie, a looming tribute to technological arrogance run amok.
Still standing tall, the "containment buildings" contrast with the overgrown weeds and deteriorated buildings that were still under construction when the plant was ordered closed in 1984.
In 1973, when Marble Hill was first proposed, Public Service Indiana (PSI, now Cinergy) said the construction cost would be a whopping $700 million, the largest capital project in Indiana history. When the public hearings on the project were completed in September, 1977, estimated construction costs had doubled to $1.4 billion.
At that time, there was concern on the part of skeptics that the cost estimates by PSI were skewed to the low side to keep burgeoning opponents from using economic arguments against the plant.
Construction began in the late fall of 1977 and seemed to be going well. Lots of money was being spent and most folks around Madison welcomed the new jobs and the economic activity they brought. And though oppositon to the plant grew steadily, PSI continued to suggest the plant would be ready to generate electricity by 1982.
But then came the disaster at Three Mile Island in late March, 1979. There, entire systems failed and the super hot core of activated uranium in one of the reactors melted causing pressure to build up inside the containment building. A larger disaster was averted after a tense three day period that had hydrogen building up inside the containment that if released could spell death and future disease and economic destruction for thousands of people who lived downwind or down stream.
Three Mile Island changed everything nuclear. The fear caused by the near meltdown was widespread and crossed all socio-economic boundaries. That fear permeated all nuclear developments and Marble Hill was no exception.
Construction did proceed but at a somewhat slower pace with more regulatory emphasis on safety issues. Then a symbolic bombshell dropped on Marble Hill when on May 8, 1979, Charles Cutshall, a former employee of Marble Hill’s general contractor, Gust K. Newburg filed an affidavit indicating that he and other Newburg employees had been told to "cover up" construction defects before inspectors could find them.
Specifically, the defects that Cutshall revealed were in the concrete poured in the walls of the containment buildings. Cutshall claimed that "honeycombs" were in a number of areas of the vital containment structure that would protect people from a breach of radioactive gas should a situation like Three Mile Island happen at Marble Hill.
In what was to become a public relations nightmare for PSI, construction on the plant was shut down on three different occasions during the summer of 1979. PSI’s chairman, Hugh Barker, in an act of desperationin an employee magazine titled Watts Cookin" claimed, "One is forced to ask what’s really behind the anti-nuclear movement? Who is fanning the flames of fear and irrational emotion?"
Asking the question Barker then attempted to answer his question. "Two British experts on Soviet propaganda accuse the Soviet Union of funding and manipulating anti-nuclear movements in the west…the radicals among the anti-nuclear forces, by whatever name, clearly have as their goal, the transformation of our democratic, free society."
But for Marble Hill and most nuclear plants around the country, time was running out in the aftermath of Three Mile Island. Construction costs exploded to the point that companies could not hire enough people or throw enough money at these flawed proposals to complete their construction.
A few nukes were completed but only after years of construction and huge cost overruns. Marble Hill was finally shut down in 1984 when it finally became apparent to the government of Governor Robert Orr that completion of the plant might end up causing bankruptcy for not only PSI but also their customers who could ill afford the gigantic increases in rates that Marble Hill would cause.
When it finally closed, more than $2.8 billion had been spent on construction and it was only 20% complete. Finally, someone was listening to the economic arguments that enviros had been making for seven years about the ridiculous cost of the plant.
Now the plant has been stripped of its main components, those being sold off at pennies on the dollar at auctions in the late 80s. But on the outside, except for its rustic look, the containment buildings, cooling towers and turbine buildings still stand.
When I visited the plant last week on my way to a hearing an another power plant in the region, I was struck by the fact that nearly twenty years had gone by and now the Bush Administration wanted to go down the nuclear path again.
I wondered what they had missed in the great debate over nukes that made them think that nuclear power would be accepted by the people again. Had twenty years been long enough to vaporize the memories of those untold thousands who had stood strongly against the building of nuclear fission reactors.
I also tried to imagine the circumstances that would change the capital market’s feeling about nukes. So many investors got stung by the lies and exaggerations of the nuclear industry the first time around, how could they have any credibility just a couple of decades later?
Would any sort of savvy investor think it wise to invest upwards of $20 billion on a plant that would generate the same amount of electricity that a natural gas plant that cost less than a billion to build?
Then it occurred to me. Of course the capital markets would not support such a scheme. But perhaps the easy spending government of George W. Bush would be willing to invest in such a facility if one of his friends and campaign contributors could reap big profits from such a public investment of capital.
Never mind that would have been labeled as socialism a few years back and held in disdain by people who considered themselves "conservative."
This neo-conservatism of our president is anything but conservative. It is nothing more than the socialization of risk and the privatization of profit, designed to enhance the wealth and power of his corporate friends while making people of lesser means pay not only to build the plants but also for the energy they produce while assuring big profits for those that were their "private" corporate sponsors.
It is not only nukes that could be built under this scenario, it is also coal plants, that pollute the air and injure our health. Calling it "Clean Coal" plants may be built using very little private capital but all the profits will go to the sponsoring corporations. Peabody Energy comes immediately to mind for such a program.
Their desire to build three giant conventional coal plants, one each in Kentucky, Illinois and New Mexico have found nary a partner they need to fund the plants’ cost of more than $6 billion. The only partners they have found to construct the plants are the regulators of the EPA and Interior Departments who have been willing to look away from serious environmental problems their 19th Century technology will bring.
Just because Peabody’s employees were gracious with their nearly $1 million investment in the Bush/Republican campaign in 2000, could be enough reason for the Bush/Cheney energy consortium to invest taxpayer money into their antiquated plans.
But just as I was contemplating such a scheme, two trucks pulled out from around the Marble Hill mausoleum. The first thing that went through my mind was that Homeland Security was even guarding ghost nukes and I was going to be told to leave in the interest of national security.
And sure enough, one of the trucks approached and slowed as it descending upon me and my camera. When the truck stopped, the driver asked what I was doing and I told him I was taking pictures and that it had been a long time since I had visited Marble Hill.
He told me he owned the plant now and I suggested that "must be interesting." He agreed and said that I might know the people in the other truck, "they used to work for Westinghouse (the designers of the plant)."
As he drove off, I pondered why former Westinghouse employees would be lurking around Marble Hill.
As they passed me, they looked at me curiously and proceeded down the road to another parked car. I pulled up beside them, knowing something about them, I asked, "You guys going to rebuild this plant?" They did not answer but one of them came closer and asked about my interest.
I told him that I had not been to the plant for more than fifteen years and just stopped by out of curiosity. He told me that he and other of the men worked for Marble Hill’s "sister" plant. Knowing too much about the facility, I blurted out, "Braidwood?"
"Yes, you know about Braidwood?
"It is now owned by Exelon, right?" I asked.
"Yep, did you work here or something?" he queried.
"Actually, I fought Marble Hill," I said.
"Well, you won," declared the Exelon employee.
"Yes, we did!" I drove off wondering just what they were doing there.
JOHN BLAIR runs Valley Watch, an environmental group in Evansville, Indiana that battles against big coal and the nuclear industry. In 1979, he won the Pulitzer Prize for news photography. He can be reached at: email@example.com