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Nuclear Waste: 20 Years After Shoreham’s Closure

A Look At What Long Island's Failed Nuclear Plant Could Have Been


By Timothy Bolger and Christopher Twarowski

Missing That Spark: With no power to turn the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant's turbines, they were auctioned off and all that remains is cold steel and silence.<BR><I>Photo by Ethan Stokes</i>

Missing That Spark: With no power to turn the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant's turbines, they were auctioned off and all that remains is cold steel and silence. Photo by Ethan Stokes


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Once on the grounds of the old Shoreham nuclear power plant, it’s like discovering that the wizard is really some guy playing make believe behind a curtain. The reactor building—the most iconic structure in the cluster—is clearly in a state of disrepair, although the wear is only visible up close. The area looks like a sci-fi movie set—so much so that Hollywood producers had scouted out the location.

On the inside of the neighboring building—which housed turbines before they were auctioned off—the entryway reveals drug-reference-laden graffiti and the smell is reminiscent of a moldy basement. Signs warn would-be workers to wear ear protection, but the only thing audible in this power plant’s tomb is the hum of florescent lights.

Up a flight of stairs into the control room, where the antiquated equipment could pass for a Death Star replica, this reporter’s tour guide imparts the significance of where we stand: Were the plant in operation, we would be behind the glass and a SWAT team would be guarding the room. “Now we have Jimmy up at the guard booth and that’s it,” says Edmund Petrocelli, Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) project manager, referring to the retiree manning the gate. It’s a lonely job, as this plant saw a drop-off in visitors when it was closed down two decades ago following an intense public debate between those concerned about a radiation leak and those who favored nuclear energy.

For many Long Islanders, the Shoreham nuclear power plant controversy is a distant memory faded with time. Yet the sea-foam green $6 billion relic still stands tall, a stark reminder set against the rural landscape. For those living in the plant’s shadow, it now is symbolically referred to as Long Island’s white elephant.

Twenty years ago this month, Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) shareholders approved a deal between then-Gov. Mario Cuomo and the utility’s leadership to close the plant before it went into commercial operation, making it the first nuclear power plant in the nation to be decommissioned, and the first to be closed before being fully powered up. Also, 30 years ago this month, more than 600 anti-nuclear power protestors were arrested as they scaled the fence at the plant’s east gate on North Country Road, in a local movement that first introduced us to some of our current leading environmentalists. But with so much time having passed, the saga has been largely forgotten, despite its costly fallout.

“A lot of people who live on Long Island today don’t even know what LILCO was, let alone Shoreham,” says Richard Kessel, former president and CEO of LIPA, who is now head of the New York Power Authority (NYPA). The Merrick resident began his career in public utilities by protesting Shoreham and was eventually handed the keys to the plant after LILCO was sold to LIPA.

Sidney Bail, president of the Wading River Civic Association and one of the community’s original anti-power-plant activists, sees the complacency when he walks from his house down to Creek Road, home to the best view of the plant.

“Someone who’s driving through the community just visiting will stop and ask you, ‘What is that structure over there?’” says Bail. “It’s fading into memory although it’s very much a reality because we’re still saddled with the Shoreham debt.”

Aside from LIPA’s accountants, nowhere are people more familiar with Shoreham’s burden than those who call the decrepit facility a neighbor.

“At the time of the transfer from LILCO to LIPA, the nuclear power plant was roughly responsible for $32 million of roughly a $40 million budget,” says Kevin Mann, a social studies teacher in the Shoreham-Wading River Central School District who is the only faculty member still there since the controversy climaxed. The low school taxes allowed for innovative programs that drew families—like Bail’s—to the community. But when the plant closed, a 10-year-plan to ease the tax burden from LIPA to homeowners became riddled with political infighting between state lawmakers, the Town of Brookhaven and school district officials.

“It’s not getting any better right now, it’s actually going to get worse,” Mann said on May 21, the day after voters in the district voted down a 27-percent tax increase that was proposed to make up for a 3-year tax freeze mandated following a settlement about disputed state grants. Still, these ramifications don’t compare to the feelings felt when the news broke that the plant would be decommissioned.

“A lot of people likened it to the end of the Vietnam War,” Mann said. “It had been dragging and dragging and dragging, so people were not necessarily happy with the outcome, but they were happy with the closure because it was just going to go on forever.”

In the end, the protestors say that they had little to do with their cause’s success.
“I think LILCO lost more than we won,” says Peter Maniscalco, who was protesting by camping out in his car one block from the plant for 55 days in 1989 when he heard the news. “Our job was to keep the issue alive long enough for them to do themselves in,” he says.

By that time, LILCO had long since lost the public relations war. “Three Mile Island was the first dagger,” says Kessel of the 1979 partial-core meltdown in Pennsylvania, the biggest nuclear power plant accident in U.S. history. “Chernobyl was the second dagger and the final dagger, in my view, was Hurricane Gloria and LILCO’s inability to respond to it quickly and the decision of its chairman to stay in Italy rather than come back” to deal with the resulting power outages, he adds, referring to then-LILCO CEO William Catacosinos, who was vacationing with his wife at the time.

Parts of eastern LI were without power for up to two weeks following that 1985 storm, and four years later public resentment toward LILCO culminated in Shoreham’s demise.

“Despite all the great efforts made by many people, Shoreham was licensed for commercial purposes, and had the state not entered into a deal with LILCO to close Shoreham, that plant would have operated commercially,” Kessel says. Ultimately, it was LILCO’s proposed evacuation plan—which attempted to address the logistics behind a mass-departure from the East End—that was the final nail in the coffin after Cuomo refused to sign off on it.

But not all of Shoreham was anti-nuclear power.

“I was happy to live next to the plant,” says Stephen Musolino, Ph.D., health physicist at Brookhaven National Lab (BNL) who specializes in radiological threats and co-wrote the Shoreham Safety Report, which countered anti-Shoreham rhetoric at the time. He was one of many pro-nuke folks in the science field who lived in the community and worked at either BNL, SUNY Stony Brook University, the Grumman facility in Calverton or at the power plant itself. Despite the Shoreham controversy, it was often overlooked at the time that BNL itself had three nuclear reactors, all used for research. One is currently being dismantled while the other two await decommissioning.

“It could have taken a matter of days before a release occurred” in the event of an accident because of the modern safety measures in place, he says, taking issue with comparisons to Chernobyl, which did not meet modern U.S. standards. “You could walk two miles long before any release of radiation,” says Musolino, also a former member of a nuclear accident response team.

Ultimately, the proposed power plant and its ensuing political meltdown was bad news for all of LI—for those for or against, since everyone pays the 16 percent of their LIPA bill that continues to go toward LIPA’s $7 billion debt, half of which is from Shoreham.

“The abandonment of Shoreham was the most significant disaster to ever hit Long Island,” says Matthew Cordero, a former LILCO vice president who is now a professor specializing in energy research and policy at CW Post. He went on to call it “the single most important event of its kind that really shaped the future of Long Island as we know it today.”

For better or worse, the plant lies dormant. Too costly to dismantle, too antiquated to fire up, while taking up valuable real estate and becoming nothing more than the area’s biggest conversation piece. What LIPA’s debt load would look like had Shoreham been green-lighted is open to debate, but one thing is certain: No matter which side won the battle, LI lost the war.


What Could Have Been

It’s been 20 years since the Shoreham nuclear power plant was shut down and Long Island ratepayers were saddled with its $6 billion price tag. But what would have happened if it hadn’t closed? What if Shoreham had become commercially operational—would it really have altered Long Island’s energy future that much? We examined historical news accounts, toured the facility and spoke to many of the officials and civic leaders who were there. We also used our imagination, and had a little fun. Here is what we at the Press believe could have been over the past 40 years, had the facility officially gone online.

April 25, 1965
The Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) announces plans to build a 500 MW nuclear power plant in Shoreham-Wading River. It also unveils plans for nuclear reactors in Jamesport, Lloyd Harbor, Glen Cove, Hempstead, Montauk and Bellport.

1972

The Nelson Rockefeller Bridge is completed, extending the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway across the Long Island Sound and connecting the North Shore of Long Island in Syosset to Rye in Westchester County. It is Robert Moses’ final project before his ascension to the White House in 1977. The bridge becomes an integral part of the Island’s emergency evacuation plan.

1973
Construction begins at Shoreham. Cost overruns escalate to $2 billion by the late 1970s, partly due to design changes ordered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Bulldozers begin demolition of the Montauk Lighthouse to make way for the Montauk plant. Decried by some preservationists and historians, the move is hailed by the Long Island Builders Institute as “the ushering in of a new era.”

March 28, 1979
Rumors of something strange happening at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania raise suspicion among some media outlets, but is quickly overshadowed by their coverage of newly published nude photos of Cher.

Dec. 8, 1980
Former Beatle John Lennon holds a benefit concert on the grounds of the Shoreham plant in support of nuclear energy, which he and wife Yoko Ono dub, “the cleanest energy on the planet.” That evening, deranged fan Mark David Chapman is arrested trying to break into Lennon’s Manhattan apartment and is extradited to prison in Georgia, never to be heard from again.

1981
The NRC declares Shoreham safe for operation.

February 17, 1983
A resolution asserting that Suffolk couldn’t be safely evacuated fails in the County Legislature, tipping the scale in favor of Shoreham’s approval. Gov. Mario Cuomo deems that the Rockefeller Bridge and LILCO’s proposal for all lanes of the LIE and Northern State to be opened westward in the event of such an evacuation, provide a sufficient exodus route for fleeing residents. The NRC approves the plan.

1984
The New York Islanders hockey team changes its name to the New York Reactors following a four-year dynasty of consecutive Stanley Cup wins.

1985
LILCO receives federal permission for full operation of the Shoreham plant. Ratepayers don’t see a significant difference in their bills. Behind the scenes, the incurred costs of the facility topple the $5 billion mark, and LILCO officials secretly wonder how to manage the debt.
Hurricane Gloria touches down on LI. Because of Shoreham’s evacuation plan, it proves to be the most successful evacuation in U.S. history.

April 25, 1986
LILCO officials Dick Amper, Adrienne Esposito and Neil Lewis tour the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, lauding its efficiency and safety. LILCO Chairman William J. Catacosinos proclaims that the Shoreham plant will be “as safe and sound as this one.”

June 28, 1989
Shoreham goes fully online. LILCO attaches a 3 percent surcharge to LI electric bills for 30 years to pay off the nuclear facility’s approximately $6 billion price tag.

1991
Construction begins on the Jamesport, Lloyd Harbor and Bellport nuclear power plants. Another facility is planned for Queens.

1992
Sixteen-year-old Amy Fisher shoots the wife of Joey Buttafuoco, a donut-eating safety inspector in Sector 7G at Shoreham. Dubbed the “Nuclear Lolita” by the media, she is sentenced to seven years in prison for attempted murder.

1994
Members of the Earth Liberation Front add a second head to the Big Duck in Flanders, to bring attention to the possible effects of radiation. Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney likes the two-headed duck and decides to keep it. It becomes LI’s biggest tourist attraction.

1995
LILCO’s new chairman Richie Kessel is appointed national energy czar by President Clinton. On the side, Kessel opens the hamburger chain Nuclear Burger, which introduces the world to the mammoth Meltdown: four beef patties marinated in bacon juice. It becomes more popular than the Big Mac and Whopper. Nuclear plants and Nuclear Burgers spring up across the United States.

July 17, 1996
An experimental, top-secret laser beam from Shoreham successfully shoots down a missile accidentally fired by the U.S. Navy at Flight 800, a Boeing 747 passenger flight en route to Paris from JFK International Airport. An aviation disaster of unimaginable magnitude is averted.

2001

Terrorists hijack commercial airliners and attack the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Shoreham nuclear plant. On one of the darkest mornings in our country’s history, at 9:45:56 a.m., Shoreham became the only target struck that withstood the attack and defied the terrorists’ plans. It lived up to its promise of being impervious to hurricanes and a direct hit from a jumbo jet. Millions of lives are spared.

2004
The Press exposes massive circulation fraud at Newsday. The daily had been incinerating more than 100,000 newspapers a day at various nuclear reactors across the Island, while charging advertisers based on its inflated figures. Shoreham’s newly installed spokeswoman, Deirdre Parish-Williams, refutes the findings, calling the allegations “unfounded” and “without merit.”

2005
LILCO gets federal and state approval to install 80 wind turbines off Jones Beach. The $1.4 billion project inspires other such projects along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Broadwater Energy, a joint venture of Shell Oil and TransCanada, gets federal and state approval to construct a $700 million floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in the Long Island Sound. Two years later, a second floating LNG terminal is approved off Montauk Point.

2007
The Jones Beach Wind Farm goes online, generating 280 MW at a cost of more than $2 billion. The Broadwater project hits a snag during construction as a spark ignites 1 billion cubic feet of LNG and creates a fireball two miles in diameter. Despite the setback, work resumes three months later.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) release a report stating that the U.S. autism rate in children is about 1 in 150. Immediately, long-time opponents of Shoreham blame the plant for the spikes. “It has to be Shoreham,” activists say, “We had healthy children before this. They had their vaccines and everything.”

2008

Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray approves the construction of the Hempstead reactor, though stalls on allowing the Lighthouse redevelopment project, saying it could pose traffic issues with the area.
Furless corpses of unidentifiable creatures wash up on the beaches near Montauk. Dubbed “Montauk Monsters,” the carcasses are thought to be the result of a radioactive leak at Shoreham.
Cablevision CEO James Dolan purchases the Shoreham nuclear plant from LILCO and enters into negotiations to purchase all of the Island’s nuclear reactors.

2009
Long Islanders pay some of the highest energy rates in the country and continue to pay down Shoreham’s $6 billion price tag. Currently, the bill stands at around $3.5 billion worth of debt. The Island is also home to some of the highest Autism and cancer rates in the United States.


What Really Happened

The deal consummating the permanent closure of the Shoreham nuclear power plant and the transfer of its $6 billion price tag onto Long Island ratepayers was sealed on June 28, 1989, according to LIPA. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Shoreham’s demise, we thought it fitting to give a recap of the many milestones that have come to pass throughout its controversial history. Shoreham has mapped Long Island’s energy future—and the region’s—far into the foreseeable future.

April 25, 1965
The Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) announces plans to build a 500 MW nuclear power plant. At the time, the demand for electricity was increasing more than 10 percent per year on Long Island, and the Atomic Energy Commission was urging power companies to use nuclear power.

1968
LILCO enlarges its plans for the Shoreham plant from 540 MW to 820 MW, causing a year’s delay in its planning and filing of its construction permit application. This increases construction cost estimates from $70 million to $217 million, the first of many such increases throughout the next 15 years. LILCO also announces plans for two more reactors, in Jamesport and Lloyd Harbor.

1970
Residential opposition kills the Lloyd Harbor plans. Jamesport plans never get further than the drawing board.

1973
Construction at Shoreham begins. Cost overruns escalate its estimated price tag to $2 billion by the late 1970s, partly due to design changes ordered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

March 28, 1979
There is a partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. The accident results in a release of radioactive gases and signals the death knell for new nuclear plant construction in the United States. Confusion between the plant’s operators and the public about the details of the incident, as well as the release less than two weeks earlier of the film The China Syndrome (involving the near-meltdown and cover-up at a nuclear plant), fuel anti-nuclear public sentiment nationwide.

The Three Mile incident sparks sweeping changes by the NRC regarding reactor operator training, radiation protection, emergency response planning and many other operations at nuclear power plants. The NRC tightens its regulatory oversight and adopts stricter evacuation requirements for nuclear facilities. The operators of nuclear plants are mandated to work out evacuation plans in cooperation with state and local governments.

June 1979
More than 15,000 protesters converge outside the Shoreham facility following the Three Mile Island accident in the largest public opposition gathering in Long Island’s history. The protests continue for years.

1981
The NRC declares Shoreham safe for operation.

February 17, 1983
Suffolk County Legislature on a 15 to 1 vote passes a resolution asserting that the county could not be safely evacuated. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo orders state officials not to approve any LILCO-sponsored evacuation plan.

1985
LILCO receives federal permission for low-power 5 percent tests at Shoreham.

April 26, 1986
A reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine explodes, releasing massive amounts of highly radioactive elements into the atmosphere and sending a radioactive plume across the globe. The disaster displaces more than 300,000 people and results in an untold number of fatalities.

Feb. 28, 1989
Cuomo and LILCO Chairman William J. Catacosinos sign off on an agreement that would close Shoreham forever but make ratepayers shoulder the responsibility for most of its costs.

June 28, 1989
LILCO approves the abandonment of Shoreham and the plant is sold to the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) for $1. A 3 percent surcharge is attached to Long Island electric bills for 30 years to pay off the nuclear facility’s $6 billion price tag. LIPA is charged with decommissioning the plant.

June 11, 1992
Shoreham becomes the first commercial U.S. nuclear power plant to be dismantled.

1994
The last shipment of uranium fuel from Shoreham is shipped to Philadelphia Electric Company. LIPA pays $45 million for the company to use the fuel in its two reactors near Pottstown, Pennsylvania. The NRC tests the site to confirm it is free of dangerous levels of radiation and issues an order terminating Shoreham’s license, releasing the site for “unrestricted use.”

2002
The Cross-Sound Cable is completed at the Shoreham site, connecting the Long Island and New England power grids via a 24-mile long submarine cable beneath the Long Island Sound at Shoreham and New Haven, Connecticut. It allows for the transmission of 330 MW of power.

2005
Broadwater Energy, a joint venture by Shell Oil and TransCanada, proposes to construct a $700 million floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility in the Long Island Sound. Nicknamed “the Shoreham of this decade,” more than 20 environmental and civic groups form a coalition to oppose the project.

2007
LIPA President and CEO Kevin Law terminates a proposed project to install at least 40 wind turbines off the coast of Jones Beach. Construction begins on the Caithness LI Energy Center, a 350 MW natural gas-fired, combined-cycle plant in Yaphank.
Construction is completed and commercial operations begin on the Neptune Cable, a 65-mile-long electric transmission cable connecting New Cassel, LI and Sayreville, New Jersey. In accordance with a 2005 transmission capacity purchase agreement, LIPA has the rights to Neptune’s 660 MW of capacity for 20 years.

2008
Britain-based National Grid acquires Keyspan Energy and all of the Island’s power plants. Gov. Paterson kills Broadwater’s LNG proposal for the Long Island Sound. LIPA’s Law forms the Shoreham Advisory Committee to evaluate what use and redevelopment opportunities exist for the decommissioned Shoreham plant and its 58-acre site.

2009
LIPA and Con Edison collaborate on plans for a 350 MW offshore wind farm off the coast of the Rockaways. If constructed, the project would be the largest wind farm in the world—with the ability to expand to 700 MW up to even 1,400 MW. Caithness power plant is scheduled to begin operation.

Atlantic Sea Island Group, a private investment group, proposes the construction of an approximately 60.5-acre island about 13 miles off the coast of Long Beach for the receiving, storage and re-gasification of LNG. The project, called Safe Harbor Energy, would deliver up to 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to the New York metropolitan region.

Long Islanders pay some of the highest energy rates in the country and continue to pay down Shoreham’s $6 billion price tag. Currently, the bill stands at around $3.5 billion worth of debt. The Island is also home to some of the highest autism and cancer rates in the United States.

Source: LIPA and historical accounts

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