Dr. Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb, had come to Capitol Hill to be godfather to Ronald Reagan's plan for rebirth of the nuclear industry.
Beside him in the hearing room sat his one-time protege and laboratory mate, Dr. Theodore Taylor, who has repented his dalliance with doomsday. "I wish I had not done it," he said of his contribution to the creation of nuclear warheads. He pleaded with a House oversight subcommittee to stop the president in his tracks.
At 73, Teller remains mesmerizing. His overhanging eyebrows, his saturnine face are thinner than when he was master of Los Alamos. But he still has an aura of history, ego and theater, a rich Hungarian accent and a repertory of gestures and intonations.
He obviously repents nothing. He hailed Reagan's policy for subsidizing the nuclear industry as "long overdue." He denied that he favors nuclear over other energy forms, or is in the pay of the industry. He grandly dismissed the accident at Three Mile Island: the operators were "fools" and underpaid. Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were "fools," too, for having overreacted.
The billion-dollar Reagan revival, he suggested, would bring peace and prosperity to the Third World. About the dangers, he was cavalier, giving a variation of the gun lobby's slogan, "Guns don't kill people, people do." Nuclear reactors, he said, are not dangerous; untrained operators are.
Taylor, perspiring and looking unwell, said there was no greater gift the president could give poor countries than solar technology, a benign and renewable source of energy.
Teller was reminded by subcommittee Chairman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) of Jimmy Carter's contrary reviews about the Clinch River breeder reactor.
"Carter actually flunked out of a nuclear energy course," said Teller with withering finality.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) pointed out to him that at Cancun, Reagan had vetoed the idea of a U.N. energy bank for poor countries. Thus, we would deny Vietnam, for example, the chance to develop its offshore oil, while pushing the nuclear option.
"I am not a spokesman of this administration," Teller said stiffly.
Although he professes to favor solar energy and conservation, which Reagan has decided to starve to death, Teller sounded mighty like a Reagan spokesman.
After much nearsighted peering at his digital watch, Teller swept off, his cloak of flaymboyant certainty swirling behind him.
Rep. James Weaver (D-Ore.), asked the obvious question of Taylor, the nuclear dropout:
"You and Dr. Teller came from the same origins. You worked side-by-side in the laboratory. How did you diverge?"
Taylor was obviously uncomfortable about speaking for his mentor.
"Well," he said, "Dr. Teller grew up in Hungary and saw directly and at first-hand Soviet activities, and for all sorts of reasons has feelings which I do not have."
Was Dr. Teller changing a bit, Weaver asked encouragingly. "I believe he is changing," said Taylor, without much conviction.
The panel then turned its attention to Dr. Henry Kendall, aristocratic chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who noted that demand for electricity--11 percent of it provided by nuclear power--has fallen in some areas to the point that the electrical generating glut is as high as 40 percent.
Kendall also raised the alarm about reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, which is Reagan's answer to the waste problem. The military could use the plutonium in manufacturing weapons.
"If the U.S. turns its commercial power plants into production facilities for weapons materials, it can only expect other nations to do the same," Kendall said.
A year ago, Reagan laughed off the proliferation concerns of Amy Carter, as presented to him by her father in debate.
And he obviously is not self-conscious about reversing his well-known stand on federal subsidies, even though just a few weeks ago he was preaching to the world's shirtless to discover "the magic of the marketplace." The magic has gone out of the marketplace for the nuclear industry--no new reactors have been ordered for three years. The industry blames "over-regulation."
Actually, under-regulation is the real and growing scandal. A junior employe at Diablo Canyon discovered that engineers had used the wrong blueprint.
"A first rate screw-up," NRC Commissioner Peter A. Bradford called it. Operating licenses of 46 of the 77 U.S. plants are under review, and with good reason.
But Reagan and Teller cling to the nuclear dream of the 50s--that the atomic demon can be housebroken to provide relatively cheap energy.
Stubborn nostalgia cannot lift the industry from the grave. Wall Street has to provide the life-support system. Wall Street, last hope of liberals, is being circumspect. A representative of Merrill Lynch said, "President Reagan's plan would be helpful to the industry, but not a panacea."
In other words, since nuclear energy has proved to be expensive and dangerous, magic will be required to revive it.