Fission Stories #74: All Dressed Up and No Place to Glow

January 10, 2012
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) an operating license for its Shoreham nuclear plant near Brookhaven, New York on April 20, 1989. The New York Daily News said the NRC’s action was like “throwing a bon voyage party for the Titanic six weeks after it hit the iceberg.”

Why was issuance of the plant’s operating license greeted with such acclaim?

Six weeks before the NRC took this action, LILCO entered into an agreement with the state of New York wherein a state agency would acquire the plant for a dollar. LILCO spent 22 years and more than $5 billion building Shoreham. The reactor, capable of producing 809 megawatts of electrical power, never generated a single kilowatt of electricity. The state of New York surrendered the operating license and decommissioned the plant at an estimated cost of nearly $1 billion. It’s the most expensive electricity never generated.

The plant never operated largely because members of the community and local officials raised concerns about emergency planning. First, Suffolk County and then the state of New York refused to engage in the planning for evacuating or sheltering residents in case of an accident at the plant. LILCO attempted to demonstrate that people could be evacuated in a timely manner and eventually convinced the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA), but by then the plant’s fate was sealed. Soaring costs and the growing opposition forced LILCO to agree to the closure deal.

Our Takeaway

The adequacy of emergency planning continues to be an issue at nuclear plants in New York and elsewhere. Several local governments around the Indian Point nuclear plant have gone on record in the recent past that they do not believe people under their jurisdictions could be protected in event of a nuclear accident. FEMA judged their concerns to be overly pessimistic and concluded that any and all obstacles could be successfully overcome.

Emergency planning is the final safety net protecting the public. For it to be invoked means that all other protective measures have failed. Emergency planning must be as reliable as possible for that reason. When local governments have serious reservations about emergency planning, FEMA must not unilaterally dismiss the concerns. Instead, FEMA should sit down with the local governments to resolve their concerns.

The public deserves to be protected by emergency plans that get the “thumbs up” from all applicable local, state, and federal government entities. Some thumbs up and some thumbs down should be reserved for movie reviews, not public health measures.

“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.