At the east end of Long Island is Shoreham, the site of a never-used nuclear power plant. It cost $6 billion to build and almost $200 million to decommission. Long Islanders pay a 3% surcharge on their electric bills until 2019 to pay for the cost.
Was it worth shutting down the plant when energy independence is vital to the US? Was it worth it to Long Islanders, who are amongst the highest taxed residents in the US, to pay for something they have never used?
No question that we need to get off our oil fix. Just think how events in the Middle East would be different if we didn’t care what Libya or Saudi Arabia did with their oil. Nuclear power is one way to using less oil. But whether we encourage or forbid the use of nuclear power depends on how risky or safe we judge nuclear power to be.
Long Islanders shut down Shoreham before it began because of safety concerns. From the planning stage, the fact that the plant was located near the flight paths of two commercial airports raised some alarm. But the issue boiled over after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, in Pennsylvania; 15,000 protesters gathered outside Shoreham’s gates a few months later.
Don’t worry, Long Islanders were assured. Shoreham’s design was different. Nothing like it could happen here. But just in case it did, Long Islanders wanted to know, how were we to get to safety? How do you get thousands of people off the island? The Suffolk County Legislature, in 1983, by a 15-1 vote said that it was impossible to devise an evacuation plan.
Three years later another nuclear accident, this time at Chernobyl, in the Soviet Union, convinced many residents that reassurances by LILCO, Shoreham’s owner, were not all that reassuring.
Now we have the nuclear disaster in Japan. But don’t worry, I read again, this can’t happen here. The Japanese plants are really quite old, built before Shoreham. As explained by Nils Diaz, the head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and himself a nuclear engineer, after Sept. 11 we developed a safety program that would have prevented the kind of accident we now see in Japan at any of the US facilities.
Are you reassured now?
That was then and now is now, so President Obama put nuclear power back on the table as one of the several options towards energy independence. The new designs are safe. Don’t worry.
But still I worry.
I don’t think it’s plausible that there can be a foolproof plan for nuclear safety. Here are some of the reasons why: There are corrupt people in every industry who cut corners on safety to make more money; there are people who convince themselves into believing the best outcomes rather than planning for the worst; benefits are more attractive than risks; there are those who have vested interests in presenting rosy pictures instead of realistic ones. Mistakes are made even by the most honest and most capable of people. When billions of dollars are to be made—well, just look at Wall Street.
Risk taking may be a good trait for some things. We need to think bold in order to move beyond conventional wisdom. But there are some risks that should never be taken no matter how great the odds for success may be. Even if we are able to build 10,000 nuclear plants safely, one failure can be so catastrophic as to wipe out all other gains.
Nuclear power is a risk not worth taking. It is a gamble with the lives of our children, grandchildren and generations beyond that.
There are at least two nuclear power plants in the US that are near earthquake fault lines, one in California and the other less than 25 miles north of New York City. Indian Point, which supplies the New York region with about 1/3 of its power, sits less than a mile from a recently uncovered active seismic zone. But don’t worry: this power plant was built to withstand a 6.1 earthquake, greater than any ever recorded in New York. And the plant in San Onofre, California did withstand a 7.2 quake without damage.
What did the Japanese government say about building their nuclear power plants near fault zones? ‘We never expected an earthquake of this magnitude.’
That’s the point. We don’t expect a catastrophe greater than the greatest yet experienced. We learn how inadequate our planning was after the fact. For example, only after the Twin Towers collapsed did the design flaw become clear. Who ever thought the buildings would be struck they way they were? Certainly not the architects or engineers or safety inspectors or city officials or the thousands who worked, dined and visited every day.
Shortly after 9/11, we were re-assured that if the planes had hit Indian Point instead of the World Trade Center, it wouldn’t have led to a nuclear disaster. Really?
So I think of Shoreham and am glad that it never opened. I don’t like paying the surcharge for energy I never use. But it a price worth paying. What is not a price worth paying is opting for continued oil reliance or building new nuclear plants, even if that means spoiling the view from Long Island’s beaches with giant wind turbines churning offshore.
Not wanting a spoiled view is an aesthetic one; disavowing more oil and nuclear sources is an ethical choice. Consuming more power is a personal and social choice; contaminating the environment for decades and causing illness and hardship for generations well into the future is an ethical choice.
Nuclear power is gambling with the fate of humankind and no one has a right to place that bet.