If it weren’t for the tenacity and courage of a small band of North Fork farmers, some of whom have been working the land here for generations, all of us — on both forks — would be living in the shadow of nuclear plants with the same design as the destroyed plants that are devastating Japan.
Through tedious and expensive litigation, the Long Island Farm Bureau, together with several East End towns and the League of Women Voters, revealed dangerous fictions that were being peddled by the nuclear industry to sell their magic elixir here. But our East End common sense cut through the deception and we exposed what will go down in history as a shameful corporate fraud.
It was the winter of 1974 when three young farmers visited me in my law office above an appliance store in downtown Riverhead.
They were worried about Long Island Lighting Company plans to build two nuclear reactors in Northville. The trio, Bill Nohejl, Robbie Hartmann, and Cliff Foster, officers of the Long Island Farm Bureau, had a budget of a few thousand dollars and wanted to retain me to represent them in upcoming state hearings on the transmission lines that would divide farms on Long Island’s most fertile and scenic agricultural corridor.
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.
In a nutshell, nuclear power is a dirty, dangerous, and expensive form of electrical energy. All nuclear power does is boil water to make steam to turn electric turbines that are a century old in design. Nuclear fission doesn’t magically create electricity; the turbines 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. Nuclear power should 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 how it happened:
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 — yes, 19 — nuclear plants around the East End from Wading River east to Orient on the North Fork, and then from Westhampton east to Montauk on the South Fork. The first two in the series were to be built along the coastline in Northville, which LILCO and the state referred to as Jamesport.
Through cross examination in the Jamesport Nuclear Regulatory Proceedings, the Farm Bureau secured the 4-inch-thick Nuclear Power Park Report, which included site plans and surveys of the future locations of these nuclear 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.
The farmers were not persuaded by the editorial writers of Newsday and The New York Times, 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, LILCO’s scientists testified in Riverhead that there would never be an accident that would exceed the radiation safety limits in the regulations. On cross-examination, they were forced to admit that during an accident maximum radiation limits are suspended. In other words, during an accident, an unlimited amount of radiation could spew from a plant but the utility could accurately assure the public (as they are doing now in Japan) the emissions do not exceed safety limits.
The scientists testified that no released radiation would be immediately harmful to the residents living 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 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 scientists further testified that the Jamesport plants would not kill any fish, as a full 10 percent of the waters off Long Island Sound would be sucked through a pipe measuring eight feet in diameter, 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 these hearings 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 eastern Long Island, the farmers refused to back down. They took on the industry. In a ferocious eight-year legal dogfight, the farmers argued 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. They argued that if an accident happened, even just once, it could sterilize a large portion of Long Island requiring permanent abandonment of homes due to radiation contamination. They argued that even if an accident was not catastrophic the crops on Long Island would forever be tainted in the minds of the public, ruining a billion-dollar agricultural industry .
All of this is now happening in Japan.
The farmers also stressed that the cost of these gargantuan machines was intolerably high and were only being built due to massive tax subsidies for the corporations to build them. They pointed out that it would also be costly to protect the nuclear plants and nuclear waste from terrorists and the environment, for which no solutions existed either then, or now.
The farmers engaged in eight years of grass roots fundraising 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 make steam to turn turbines. Clean natural gas would be a better way to boil water, or instance. They argued that “painless conservation,” such as more efficient air conditioners and other appliances and programmable thermostats, would make far more energy than all the 104 nuclear plants in the country combined.
Fortunately the farmers and other well-informed activists convinced New York governors Hugh Carey and later 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 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 Newsday and The New York Times editorial boards and the utility company got their way and the East End were ringed by 19 nuclear reactors. It was a close call.
Tom Twomey resides in East Hampton and is a partner in the law firm of Twomey, Latham, Shea, Kelley, Dubin & Quartararo with offices in Southold, Riverhead, and throughout Suffolk County. He served as a Trustee of the Long Island Power Authority from 1989-95 and played a role in decommissioning the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant.