- Licensed to Kill? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Shoreham Power Plant *
The wording of the subtitle of Joan Aron’s study of nuclear ambition run aground is significant. Administrative regulation is the emphasis of this short, sober-minded monograph. The author does not ignore politics at the grass roots, but the perspective comes from Washington, D.C., rather than Long Island, New York. As befits a political scientist and senior policy analyst for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Aron clearly hopes that this tale of past folly will enlighten future policy makers.
The Shoreham nuclear project had several dubious distinctions. It took longer to complete than any other nuclear projects. Had it operated, its power costs would have been the highest of all nuclear plants. Nevertheless, Shoreham typifies many common features of the nation’s experience with civilian nuclear power. Long Island Lighting (LILCO) deployed the era’s standard terminology when, in 1965, it announced its initial Shoreham plans. Nuclear energy would be cheap, safe, and reliable. Eastern Long Island community leaders joined the bandwagon. Like many American reactor projects, designers sacrificed the benefits of standardization by planning Shoreham to be larger than existing nuclear facilities, to meet projections of rapid demand growth and to take advantage of anticipated economies of scale. Throughout Shoreham’s tortuous path to demolition, the project encountered the same national regulatory procedures that other plants went through. Even local opposition to Shoreham mirrored in many [End Page 156] ways the national movement against nuclear power that emerged in the 1970s.
The Shoreham project’s story played out in slow motion, even in comparison with the sluggish pace of other nuclear plants. It took nearly five years from LILCO’s initial application for a construction permit to its issuance in April 1973. Despite this, the utility had fallen behind in engineering. Once construction was underway, labor conflict, poor management, and inadequate design caused cost escalation and delay. By the late seventies, LILCO’s financial position had deteriorated, electricity demand growth had slowed, Long Island politicians had built careers on criticizing Shoreham, and even the utility was thinking of giving up the project.
Aron shows that 1979’s Three Mile Island accident produced a qualitative leap in public opposition to Shoreham. Indeed, that June fifteen thousand Long Islanders staged a protest outside the plant. Another consequence was an NRC rule requiring utilities and state and local governments to submit comprehensive response plans for radiological emergencies. In the 1980s, emergency evacuation became the focal point of opposition to Shoreham. Aron observes that there were good reasons to doubt the viability of the plan LILCO submitted in 1982 but also notes that utility executives and Shoreham supporters believed opponents had trumped up the issue to arouse public emotions. In any event, Governor Mario Cuomo soon backed Long Island politicians in their refusal to participate in the emergency planning procedures.
By 1983, Shoreham was 99 percent complete, but LILCO’s operating license faced complicated challenges, stemming primarily from local and state authorities’ refusal to take part in emergency planning they considered inherently flawed. The NRC, despite some dissent, in effect ran interference for the utility’s drive to operate, egged on by Reagan administration officials who declared that Shoreham’s opening was a matter of national security and that local opposition was based on technicalities. LILCO won the battles, but the results harmed everybody. The NRC gave the company the right to conduct low-power test operations. Eventually, when Shoreham was decommissioned, the tests vastly complicated the process and increased the cost, since they had left much of the plant slightly radioactive.
In the end, Aron contends, New York State’s economic muscle doomed Shoreham. Customers hated LILCO, with its soaring electric rates, and by 1986 there was bipartisan agreement on a new state agency, the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), to buy Shoreham from LILCO in order to keep it from operating. Meanwhile, the state’s public service commission was reversing its...