Albert Johnson sits in the old courthouse here and acknowledges that the recent accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear power plant "really shook some people up." But not him.
"The Titanic went down, but people didn't quit riding ships or building them," said the stocky chairman of the Louisa County Board of Supervisors whose central Virginia county is home to the North Anna power station just 10 miles away.
And in Richmond, 40 miles to the southeast, a state official discussing the same accident recommends that an interviewer consider the views of a gossipy tabloid widely circulated in supermarkets. Its banner headline: "Nuclear Plant Crisis A Hoax."
"Do you read the National Enquirer?" asks Norman McTague, director of operations for Virginia's Office of Emergency and Energy Services. "There's an article in it that suggests this Three Mile Island thing may have been blown all out of proportion."
Comments like these make longtime critics of the Virginia Electric and Power Co's two nuclear power stations extremely nervous.
They claim that health and safety conditions at the North Anna plant and at Vepco's second powere station further south in Surry County pose very real hazards to workers there and to the general public. They also complain that state and county officials who ought to be the most concerned about the plants' operations have essentially turned their backs on the whole issue.
"You have questionable technology sitting on questionable geology," warns June Allen, a language arts consultant who heads the six-year-old North Anna Environmental Coalition.
Citing a collection of problems at both plant sites, including equipment design defects and construction of the stations atop earthquake faults, Allen says Vepco' and and Nuclear Regulatory Commission's "technological optimism" is misplaced. She thinks an accident is waiting to happen.
Jim Dougherty, counsel for the Potomac Alliance, an antinuclear group, is equally apprehensive.
"The real lesson of Three Mile Island is that a lot of little problems can add up to one big one," he said. "North Anna is a real danger zone, and Surry is probably the most dangerous plant next to TMI."
All of these accusations bring a strong protest from Vepco, which counters that most of its critics are not experienced in the nuclear energy field.
And in the battle over the pros and cons of nuclear power, neither side is pulling any punches.
"The facts are not with them," argues Doug Cochran, a spokesman for the Vepco utility firm whose two nuclear stations together normally supply about 35 per cent of the power used by its 1.4 million customers in Virginia.
"An enormous amount of the press has touted all the charges [of the antinuclear groups] and they give both sides equal weight," Cochran says "But 95 percent of scientific opinion has strongly endorsed nuclear power as a vital means of maintaining our country's energy supply."
The ongoing debate is no comfort to state and local officialsm who are increasingly being questioned about North Anna and Surry operations.
"The scientists have sort of chosen up sides, and you sort of have to dig in and find out the best data to use," said McTague, whose office has put together an elaborate but little known emergency response plan in case of a nuclear plant crisis in the state.
Ironically, Virginia-a state tradirionally wary of federally imposed regulations and procedures-has abandoned a chance to have direct oversight of the power stations within its borders.
"The state can assume responsibility for the operations of the plants, but we have chosen not to do so," said McTague.Agreeing to oversee construction of the plants and monitoring and enforcing safety regulations there, he said, would require "an awful lot of monies."
So Virginia, according to McTague, has left that task to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Louisa County's Johnson also relies on the NRC, which has a staff member permanently assigned to the North Anna plant because of continuing problems there. "You have to have faith in somebody," he said.
Right now, all three of Vepco's operating atomic units-North Anna 1 and Surry 1 and 2-are shut down for repairs and inspections. A fourth plant, North Anna 2, is scheduled to open this summer, and two additional units at the site are expected to be ready for service in 1986 and 1987.
Since 1973, the utility firm has been fined nearly $80,000 by the NRC for violating safety regulations at one of the other plants. The NRC says this is more than any other company has been assessed out of a total of 81 civil penalties imposed on nuclear power plants around the country.
"Certainly, they've had their share of problems, and their safety record may not by the best," said the NRC's Region II spokesman Ken Clark, But Clark said Vepco's record "is as good as any other plant in regard to exposure of workers or the public."
Among various safety shortcomings alleged or cited by environmental groups or the NRC are these:
Location of the North Anna plant over a belatedly discovered earthquake fault.
Soil "settlement" underneath the North Anna pumphouse, which has caused the reactor's cooling facility to sink three to six inches in some places.
Improper placement of North Anna's electricity generating turbine, which conceivably could fly apart and become missiles that would ruin equipment.
Defective steam generators at the Surry plant, which are now undergoing pipe corrosion repairs to stop leaks.
Questionable seismic equipment at the Surry plant, which is also located near an earthquake fault.
Generally poor safety performance at Surry which NRC inspectors gave a "C" - below average-when they rated plants around the country. (By comparison, Three Mile Island was given a "B" for average safety performance."
Cumulative build-up of low-level radiation around both stations, which critics say contaminates the area's food chain system.
Peter Beament, Vepco's manager of power services, steadfastly disputes one by one, any suggestion that the firm's stations are unsafe.
Yes, Beament explained, North Anna's pumphouse had experienced settlement nearly double the initial expectations in some places. But its piping had been easily redesigned, with the addition of flexible joints, and the building is considered "stable" now.
Vepco is changing the position of the turbine at its North Anna plant because of new thinking about the equipment's design. But Beament said an exploding turbine would have to occur concurrently with another accident for there to be any real danger "and the odds against that are phenomenal."
The earthquake faults at both North Anna and Surry have not been active for more than 100 million years, Beament said, and the NRC long ago decided that neither plant is built at a dangerous site.
Vepco's discovery and reporting of the fault at North Anna, however, became what Beament called "a cause celebre" after the utility firm was fined $31,00 in 1976 for making a "material false statement" to the NRC.
"Most environmental groups will say anything to cause alarm," said Beament, responding to allegations that the repair work at the Surry site is really "experimental surgery" on a radioactive reactor.
"There is no small effort, and it's certainly not patching," he said, adding that the whole replacement procedure has been analyzed from every point of view.
That analytical process is exactly what critics of nuclear power say they, too, have done - with very different conclusions.
"I can't tell you which nuclear power plant is the worst, but they all have the potential for a catastrophe and none of them should be licensed," said Robert Pollard, a member of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists and former project manager of the NRC, adding that it is not unusual for scientists to make "completely contradictory statements" about nuclear power.
Opponents are told "to balance the risks against the benefits, and proponents want us to think the risks will never come to pass," said Pollard, who left the NRC "as a matter of conscience" after deciding it was "more interested in protecting the industry than the health of the public."
The NRC's Ken Clark counters that the antinuclear groups "have a right to believe whatever they want." The agency is not trying to get power plants "on line" as soon as possible, "but it does have a responsibility not to promulgate regulations which are unnedded or which impose an economic burden on the utility which is passed on to the consumer."
Vepco says it is costing the firm a total of about $735,000 a day to provide customers with alternative power while the nuclear power stations are shut down. North Anna 1 is expected to reopen this week and North Anna 2 should be operational this summer. Surry 1 probably will reopen in a month, with Surry 2 expected to reopen in August.
In Louisa County, Vepco's plant accounts for about $1.7 million in revenues a year, half the budget for the county's 18,000 residents. In Surry County, about 52 percent of the taxes come from Vepco, quite an economic lift for the tiny population of 6,100.
The North Anna plant, cooled by water of the 17-mile man-made Lake Anna, was intended to provide new housing and recreational attractions for the area. Marinas and homes have sprung up around the shore line, and Albert Johnson and at least one other county supervisor own property on the lake.
"There are daily low level emissions of radiation into the air and water," complained Margaret Dietrich, a resident of the county whose home served as the first meeting place for what became the 25--member North Anna Environmental Coalition.
Dietrich, whose group has won a rehearing before the NRC in June on its attempts to have the plant closed, is also worried about nuclear waste. Some of it now gets trucked through Richmond and Petersburg, and the state only recently passed a law giving health authorities jurisdiction over the transportation of hazardous materials.
"I don't think anybody in the county tried to inform themselves," said Marjorie Vaughan, who lives a mile from the plant. "All they could see were the dollar signs. It's like children playing with fire. They don't realize the dangers."
But the dangers, argues Vepco's Beament, have been totally exaggerated. All studies-and he says there have been many-show no increase in radiation levels above the normal and safe levels that are natural for the planet.
"Even around Three Mile Island, there's been no detectable increase in the radiation levels around the area, and they've just undergone a major accident," he said.
Vepco critics dispute this, complaining that TMI is still releasing radioactive substances. They also argue that power plant radiation is different from natural radiation and poses a more serious and direct threat to organs of the human body.
The industry's record, Beament said, "is excellent and even the Three Mile Island accident was a kind of "vindication for nuclear power.
"If the plant had behaved as the antinuclear groups say plants will, then Pennsylvania would no longer be habitable and people there would be dying of radiation exposure," he said. Instead, "people were evacuated because of a potential danger, but nobody was ever in any real danger."
June Allen of the antinuclear coalition group cautions that those choosing sides on the issue of nuclear safety "should look at both sides, at the motivations behind their arguments and see who has to gain."
Then, she said, "Ask yourself this: If I am right, what are the consequences? And if the NRC is wrong, what are the consequences?" CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Margaret Deitrich, 74-year-old activist, is one of the founders off the North Anna Environmental Coalition and a dedicated enemy of the North Anna nuclear power plant (right) in Louisa County, Va. Photos by John McDonnell-The Washington Post; Map, Vepco's two nuclear power plants supply 35 percent of state's electricity. By Richard Furno-The Washington Post; Picture 3, Louisa County Chairman Albert Johnson: "You have to have faith . . ."By John McDonnell-The Washington Post