GUESTWORDS: What Went Wrong?

By Tom Twomey

    As we read with horror about the meltdown of the nuclear plants in Japan, most of us wonder, How could this have happened? How could this tragedy have occurred in one of the most technologically sophisticated countries in the world? What went wrong?
    On the East End, we figured out in 1974 what was eventually going to go wrong with nuclear power. Through tedious and expensive litigation the Long Island Farm Bureau, together with several East End towns (including East Hampton) and the League of Women Voters, exposed the dangerous fiction developed by the nuclear industry to sell their magic elixir. Our Yankee common sense cut through the deception. We exposed what will go down in history as a shameful corporate fraud.
    In a nutshell, nuclear power is a dirty, dangerous, and expensive form of electrical energy. All it does is boil water to turn electric turbines of century-old design. Nuclear fission doesn’t magically create the electricity; the turbines still do that job, just as they do in the old coal-fired plants. As a result of the disaster in Japan, the entire world now sees the danger of this water-boiling technology. The industry ought to be doomed now that the worldwide pollution and catastrophic taxpayer expense to clean up its toxic consequences have been exposed. Nuclear power ought to be off the table as a viable energy source.
    There is one place in America where the nuclear option is off the table, and that is eastern Long Island. Trust me. Here’s the story.
    It was the winter of 1974 when three young farmers visited me in my law office above an appliance store on Main Street in Riverhead. They were worried about the Long Island Lighting Company’s plans to build two nuclear reactors at Jamesport on the North Fork. (Jamesport is about 20 miles from East Hampton as the crow flies, or, in this case, as the radioactive emissions migrate.) Bill Nohejl, Robbie Hartmann, and Cliff Foster, officers of the Long Island Farm Bureau, had a budget of a few thousand dollars and retained me to represent them in the state hearings on the transmission lines that would cut through and divide the farms in the most fertile and scenic agricultural corridor on Long Island.
    Together we began the fight that would ultimately bring nuclear power to an end on Long Island. What we learned about the nuclear industry during that time would greatly alarm us, and, because of the recent tragedy in Japan, we know now that little has changed.
    After 80 full days of hearings and the testimony of dozens of expert economic, scientific, and engineering consultants hired by the farm bureau, we defeated LILCO’s plans to build a “nuclear power park” of 19 plants, which were to be built from Wading River east to Orient on the North Fork and from Westhampton east to Montauk on the South Fork. Yes, you read that correctly. And the first two in the series were to be built at Jamesport.
    Through cross-examination in the Jamesport proceedings, the farm bureau secured the four-inch-thick Nuclear Power Park Report, which included site plans and surveys of the future locations of the reactors. LILCO intended to supply the entire East Coast with electricity, using the essential cooling waters of the Atlantic Ocean, so readily accessible on the relatively unpopulated East End. Sites in Montauk and Sagaponack were included.
    The farmers were not persuaded by the editorial writers of The New York Times and Newsday who regularly argued that the farm bureau and others raising questions about the safety and false economics of the nuclear industry were misguided and misinformed.
    With a straight face, the utility scientists testified in Riverhead that there would never be an accident that would exceed the radiation limits in the regulations. On cross-examination they were forced to admit that during an accidental event maximum radiation limits are suspended. In other words, during an accident an unlimited amount of radiation could spew from a plant and the utility could accurately assure the public (as they are doing now in Japan) that the emissions did not exceed safety limits.
    The utility scientists testified that no released radiation would be immediately harmful to residents in the vicinity of a nuclear plant. On cross-examination, they were forced to admit that no one dies immediately from cancer and leukemia, but that it takes a period of time for these “health effects” (as they euphemistically called them) to occur. In other words, the utility could accurately say (as they are doing now in Japan) that there is no immediate danger to the residents of the area.
    The utility scientists testified that the Jamesport plants would not kill any fish as a full 10 percent of the waters of Long Island Sound was sucked through an eight-foot pipe during the course of each year to cool the nuclear core. On cross-examination, they were forced to admit that the water would be heated 32 degrees, thereby killing billions of fish eggs each year, decimating the number of fish that would spawn in the Sound from then on. Although the Sound would essentially be sterilized, they defended their statement that no fish would be killed by saying they wouldn’t exist to begin with!
    Over time, it became clear to everyone at the hearings in Riverhead that the nuclear industry was built upon an elaborate deception of the public and of public officials who were making energy decisions that would commit us for decades to come. The corporate “science” simply could not be trusted. Apparently the government of Japan trusted the American companies selling these nuclear plants.
    And that is what went wrong.
    Fortunately for us on the East End, the farmers refused to back down. They decided to take on the industry. In a ferocious eight-year legal dogfight, the farmers argued that it made no sense that the biggest machine ever made by man would never have an accident, would never have pumps fail, would never overheat.
    And they argued that if an accident happened, even just once, it could sterilize a large portion of Long Island with radiation contamination for generations. They argued that, even if an accident were not catastrophic, the crops on Long Island would forever be tainted in the minds of the public, ruining a billion-dollar agricultural industry (as is happening now in Japan).
    They argued that the cost of these gargantuan machines was intolerably high and that they were being built only because of massive tax subsidies for the corporations to build them and later protect the nuclear waste from terrorists and the environment (for which no solutions existed, then or now).
    The farmers engaged in years of grassroots fund-raising in order to be able to submit reams and reams of testimony from qualified scientific experts regarding these issues.
    During this public battle, the farmers kept saying there had to be a better and cheaper way to boil water to turn turbines. Clean natural gas would be the better way to boil the water. They argued that “painless conservation” — better air-conditioners, appliances, and programmable thermostats — would produce more energy than the 104 nuclear plants in the country combined. And that’s before solar and wind energy was even factored in.
    Fortunately, the farmers and other well-informed activists convinced Gov. Hugh Carey and subsequently Gov. Mario Cuomo in one-on-one meetings that common sense should prevail. Both governors listened to the arguments of the farmers and their allies, and they both had the political courage to squash the Jamesport nuclear reactors and, years later, the Shoreham reactor.
    Just think about where we would be right now if the editorial writers and the utility company had got their way and the East End were ringed by 19 nuclear reactors. Just think if things had gone wrong here.