Published: April 2006
Charles Petit

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

While visiting Kaiga nuclear generating station deep in a jungle southeast of Goa, India, my hosts strongly urged that I attend an evening program at the employee recreation center auditorium. I was, for reasons described shortly, reluctant. But it was utterly delightful. School children and teenagers of impressive talent in brilliant costumes performed elaborate traditional dances to illustrate ancient tales. It looked like a Bollywood production. One young man did a great, contemporary break dance. And at intermission, I was called up to select winning raffle tickets (National Geographic is big in India). It gave me an unexpected reminder—although India is intent on nuclear technology—of the vibrant and distinctive culture of the people running the machines.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

At Kaiga, amid hectic reporting on a tight schedule, I got sick from an intestinal bug. There's no good time for an attack of traveler's illness, but this was dreadful.

The first queasiness set in after a warm ritual in which the station's director presented me with a garland delicately carved from aromatic wood, followed by a tour of the plant. I gamely took notes. But an hour or so later as my hosts and I looked over a hydroelectric dam, I finally said, "I'm afraid I'm ill," which I promptly demonstrated in a nearby ditch.

The officials piled me into a white government sedan and took me swiftly to the station hospital, where Dr. R. T. Sachdeo handed me pills for nausea and administered an electrocardiogram and other tests. By dinner—which I didn't eat—I was OK…if I avoided quick moves. And I was able to get to the "Best" moment that night.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

The Grand Gulf Nuclear Station, operated by the Entergy Corporation near the town of Port Gibson, Mississippi, has an operating reactor and, at one time, was building a second one that was under construction when it was abandoned in the 1980s. You can see the empty containment structure, an Entergy engineer told me.

My writer's mind went wild. "What's in it?" I asked. He looked puzzled. "Maybe bats," he said.

Perfect. I imaged a fetid jungle of kudzu vines and who knows what else, locked away for decades. It would make a fine metaphor for the enormous hubris of America's pursuit of atomic energy in the 1960s and 70s, a chase that ended in near bankruptcy for many utilities as costs soared.

As I toured the facility with two company workers, I asked if I could go inside the unfinished unit. Sure, they shrugged. So after seeing the working reactor facility, we went into the old one, where its outer chambers are now used for offices. And there it was deep inside: a giant round portal, its huge door shut and spanned by a heavy chain and a dusty lock. "Do you have the key?" I asked. They looked at me like I was nuts: "You mean actually go inside?" Getting in would take days to arrange, they said, and it's probably dangerous. You could fall off a ledge or something.

I didn't have days, so my story was spared an overwritten passage on Grand Gulf's never-radiated menagerie. But I still wonder. What the heck is in there?