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Fun at the nuclear plant

Student art work is shown at Duke Energy's McGuire nuclear station. hspace=4

Nuclear plants have a lot of tall fences, security guards, concrete encased in more concrete and, of course, radioactive material. Not exactly a place for a social gathering - or so you'd think. But Duke's nuclear plant at Lake Norman is a popular venue. It's a perfect Saturday afternoon. Kids and their parents are wandering around eating cream puffs and drinking bright green punch. It looks like a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting, if it weren't for two nuclear reactors looming just outside the window. They're all here for a student art show. Fifth grader Rachel Post is showing off her work. "I accidentally splattered a little bit of paint and then I kept splattering. I put straws on it and they're just painted on there," points out Post. About 300 pictures line the walls of Duke's Energy Explorium between exhibits that show how electricity is generated and nuclear waste is stored at the McGuire plant. For Rachel and her mother Meredith Post, it's familiar territory. "We started going to Pops in the Park downtown in Charlotte when she was one. And then when we found out it was up here, it was closer to our house and we liked the atmosphere here better," explains Post. Duke hosts a free symphony concert every year around the 4th of July. The Charlotte Symphony serenades thousands who gather on the lawn outside the Explorium and the couple hundred boaters who drop anchor in the lake. Last year, movie nights were also added to the summer program: a free showing of "Doctor Seuss' Horton hears a who" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks." "They know nuclear power is safe because they've spent some time here and they not only had a good time, but were safe," says Valerie Patterson who coordinates the events Duke holds at its McGuire station. "That's the benefit that pays itself off ten-fold. You can't buy that publicity. It takes building relationships and connecting with them on a personal level to help them feel safer," explains Patterson. The exhibits make no reference to what went wrong at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. These exhibits are used to talk about safety measures in place at McGuire and other U.S. plants. Just last week, the center held an event for newcomers, and the area where the plant discharges water into the lake, called the Hot Hole, is a popular spot to fish. Does Patterson ever get questions about 3-eyed fish walking around here? "Maybe once in a blue moon. I haven't seen anything like that, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone caught something like that. But we wouldn't attribute that to nuclear power. Things mutate on their own," responds Patterson. Duke Energy operates three plants in the Carolinas. Two are within 25 miles of Charlotte, the McGuire station on Lake Norman and one on Lake Wylie. They've received a few citations, but they haven't received any fines over the last twelve years. Patterson says the community appreciates the plant's outreach and safety record. "If we were in a community that didn't want us here it would make our jobs harder. If we had people strongly opposed people could organize themselves and use some of the legal systems to curtail your operations or shut down. We're fortunate to be in a community where we're well accepted," says Patterson. That's something that Catherine Mitchell can attest to. For five years up until 2003, she held meetings throughout the Charlotte area to prevent Duke from using a fuel blended with plutonium. The government wanted to convert its extra plutonium meant for weapons into fuel plants could burn. Most of the meetings were small. A few people came, some with concerns. But she always hit a roadblock. "Charlotte is just a very hard place to bring this up. Charlotte has never been a hotbed of activism. But also it's the hometown headquarters of Duke. There are lifelong relationships - civic, cultural financial, personal endowments that are tied to Duke," says Mitchell. Duke wants to build a plant in Cherokee County, South Carolina. Three years ago, they held an open house on the proposed site complete with barbecue. And they've continued to send information out to residents. Patterson says these outreach and education efforts will be crucial in the push to build more plants. "So as companies look to build more nuclear, they've already formed a good solid opinion about the safety of the technology and would be supportive of more nuclear plants online. Because these plants will have to be built in people's community," explains Patterson. Back at the art show, Meredith Post says she looks forward to the family events at the plant. She says there's always a very small chance that something could go wrong, but "You just can't worry about that. You just have to go on with your life and whatever happens happens. You can't worry about the what-ifs," says Post. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold its annual public meeting in Rock Hill tonight to discuss safety at Duke's Catawba station on Lake Wylie. A similar meeting will take place at McGuire tomorrow night. If past meetings are any indication, only a few people will show up on the same grounds that will host thousands for the symphony concert next month.