December 24, 1979 12:00 PM

The hulk of the Titanic and the rubble of the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, one entombed beneath the sea, the other a poisoned mausoleum aboveground, both remain as monuments to the technological hubris of our century.

His phrasemaking knack was not the only reason Arizona’s Gov. Bruce Babbitt was chosen to serve on the presidential commission to investigate the near disaster at Three Mile Island. His degrees in geology from Notre Dame and in geophysics from the University of Newcastle in England grounded him in science. His subsequent work as a lawyer, particularly as attorney general of the state, trained him to sift complex evidence judiciously. Finally, as a governor and an unusually contemplative American politician, he had already pondered his own response to a nuclear crisis. Sums up Babbitt, 41: “What I brought to the commission was the prospect of having to call a press conference and evacuate 500,000 people.”

A staunch champion of the commission’s recommendations, which include tighter regulation of nuclear facilities, the governor considers the six-month Investigation an invaluable experience. “Before Three Mile Island, I was a skeptic,” he admits. “I was uncertain about the technology and how we control it. Now I have more confidence in the machines, but I’m concerned about the people. We can’t design the perfect model without men and women appropriately trained to run it.”

Ideally, says Babbitt, nuclear power shouldn’t be used at all, but he takes a characteristically reasoned approach to the most fashionable and passion-stirring issue of 1979. “You cannot eliminate the risk,” he declares, but he believes it must be tolerated until better options become available. “We don’t have any choice,” he argues. “We have to end our dependence on Middle East oil. It is intolerable to leave the U.S. with an economy that can collapse in 24 hours as a result of something like the Iran situation.” How then should the U.S. reconcile that need with the dangers? “We should treat nuclear as a transitional form of energy that we can do without in 30 years,” says Babbitt. “We should build all plants at remote sites, weed out ineffectual utilities and turn the Nuclear Regulatory Commission upside down and make it effective.”

A third-generation Arizonian, Babbitt was student body president at Notre Dame, where he revealed a budding social consciousness. “As a kid, I had this science thing and thought I was bound to be a geologist,” he recalls. “Then one summer in college I was on an expedition in the jungles of Bolivia and I was suddenly struck by the incongruity of using enormous resources to sit and speculate about the origin of continents when so many people around us were starving.” After graduating from Harvard Law School, he enlisted as a civil rights lawyer in LBJ’s antipoverty task force.

Returning to Phoenix in 1967, Babbitt represented the Navajo Indians in a legislative reapportionment case and was outraged by the performance of the state attorney general, who opposed him. In 1974, though uncomfortable as a campaigner, he ran for the office himself on the Democratic ticket and won. An aggressive prosecutor in land fraud and public corruption cases, Babbitt also established himself as a vigorous enforcer of laws benefiting consumers. Then, when Gov. Raul Castro resigned in 1977 and his successor, Wesley Bolin, died five months later, Babbitt assumed the job according to law. In 1978 he was elected to a full four-year term on his own.

Like California’s Jerry Brown, Babbitt has declined to move into the governor’s mansion. He still resides in a three-bedroom Phoenix ranch house with his wife, Hattie, 32, a practicing trial lawyer, and their two young sons. (A babysitter tends the children during the day, but the Babbitts make certain that at least one parent is home early enough to tuck the kids in.) With his growing reputation for decisive action—typified by his order last fall directing the National Guard to remove drums of radioactive tritium from a closed-down Tucson factory—Babbitt knows he is regarded by some as a rising political star, and by others as a man in a hurry. Yet he refuses to agonize over not pleasing everybody. “Life is too short to spend all your time worrying about consequences,” he finds. “You’ll come out ahead by doing things correctly and well.”

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