You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Water and Air

Somebody Fouled Up

Atomic energy, like the internal combustion engine, non-deteriorating aluminum cans, jet-powered aircraft and other 20th century technological successes, has fallen into deep disfavor among environmentalists. Nuclear power—once hailed as unlimited, clean and cheap—has proven lo be none of these. Several of the 16 nuclear plants that have operated are now out of service, the cleanliness of the plants has been discredited as the impact of radioactive effluents and thermal pollution is assessed, and the costs of building and operating A-plants have always exceeded estimates.

Moreover the Atomic Energy Commission, assigned the incompatible responsibilities of both promoting and regulating the nuclear power industry, is under constant attack from congressmen, conservationists, various state governments, and citizen groups, all concerned about what is considered the AEC’s unchecked authority and atomic energy’s vast potential for destroying the environment.

The AEC’s responsibilities and the true effectiveness and environmental impact of nuclear power are the larger issues in the once local and now nationally significant application of the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) to build an 820-megawatt, $271 million atomic energy plant at Shoreham, NY, on the southern shoreline of Long Island Sound. The LILCO application, originally thought to be routine, with routine localized opposition and equally routine approval by an ever-sympathetic AEC, has become a test case.

After three pre-hearing conferences and months of delay on many procedural and some substantive questions, a three-member AEC Safety and Licensing Board team convened its hearing on the proposed facility, Sept. 21 near Shoreham. After one week the hearing was recessed f6r a month; more interruptions are also expected before the hearing can be completed.

In support of licensing will be the lighting company, with a large staff of scientists, engineers and lawyers; a group called Suffolk Scientists for a Cleaner Environment, composed almost entirely of AEC and nuclear industry employees associated with Brookhaven National Laboratory, which is very near the proposed plant site; :ind those AEC officials who have approved of the plant during the several intermediate steps leading up to the hearing.

Opposed to licensing are the Lloyd Harbor Study Group, a citizens’ organization which leads the opposition; James Turner, of Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law, who is concerned about radioactivity from the plant entering the human food chain; Nobel laureate James Watson; and AEC scientists Arthur R. Tamplin and John W. Gofman. Gofman and Tamplin have elicited the wrath of their bosses and the worship of environmentalists with their highly controversial proposal that permissible levels of radiation from A-plants be reduced to—at the very most—10 percent of present levels.

The plant’s proponents point out that nuclear power does not create sulfur dioxide and other air pollutants associated with conventional (or fossil fuel) generating plants that burn coal, oil or gas. They argue that atomic energy will eventually mean cheaper electricity and that because supplies of the fossil fuels are limited atomic energy is essential in meeting sharply rising power demands in the New York metropolitan area. (Those favoring the plant avoid mention of the fact that Consolidated Edison’s power shortage in New York this summer was caused, in part, by the fact that Con Ed’s only nuclear plant was out of service from March 20 through the entire peak demand period.)

As expected, those favoring the Shoreham facility argue that the radioactivity discharged into the air and into Long Island Sound and the heat discharged into the Sound would all remain below dangerous levels.

The plant’s opponents contend that the radioactivity could be quite harmful, and that the thermal pollution, which is much greater than that from conventional plants, would create an imbalance in the Sound’s ecology. They note that the technology exists to make significant reductions in air pollution from fossil fuel plants. They point also to the failure of the nation’s utilities to properly exploit clean hydroelectric power and natural gas which is cleaner than coal or oil.

During the first week of the hearing they directed their attention to what they called the lack of quality control in the nuclear industry and have sought to demonstrate that the discipline and care involved in the construction of the Shoreham reactor falls far short of the discipline and care in the aerospace industry. As Irving Like, the Study Group’s attorney and a veteran of many conservation battles, said, “We are putting the technology on trial.”

Finally, the plant’s opponents have specific objections to the Shoreham site since the plant would be approximately one mile from a Nike missile base and four-and-a-half miles from the end of a runway used to test new and experimental Navy aircraft.

Some recent developments in the atomic energy debate are getting their first test at the Shoreham hearing. Of special concern to Mr. and Mrs. William Carl, who head the Study Group, is the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which charged all federal agencies, including the AEC, with broad responsibilities for making environmental safety a factor in all decisions within their jurisdictions. A current review of radiation standards ordered by former HEW Secretary Robert Finch and a White House decision to diminish the AEC’s regulatory authority are factors in the hearing.

Mr. Like and the Carls feel the Board is paying lip service to the intent of the Environmental Policy Act. They are especially upset that the Board is adhering to a traditional AEC policy by refusing to consider thermal pollution at the hearing. [A federal court suit filed in Michigan could result in forcing the AEC to consider thermal pollution and other environmental factors in licensing more than 90 nuclear power plants planned or being built by the electric power industry.]

Long Island Congressman Lester L. Wolff, agreeing with the Study Group, said at the hearing’s opening session: “AEC compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act has been incomplete to continue as you have been going would be a direct affront to the Congress which passed this law and the President who signed it … The AEC is not a law unto itself.”

Two lawsuits are being filed in federal courts challenging AEC implementation of the Environmental Policy Act and there are reports that the Environmental Quality Council is probing AEC inaction in this area. For Irving Like and the Study Group this affords them an excellent basis for the probable appeal of the Board’s expected approval of the plant. But Like and the Carls find themselves at a distinct disadvantage fighting the massive atomic energy establishment, which includes:

A self-serving network of cooperation among the AEC, the major commercial interests in the atomic energy business, large financial institutions, fuel suppliers, the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, and the principal utilities. These interlocking relationships were detailed in a 400-page report on “Competition in the Nuclear Power Supply Industry” prepared for the AEC and Department of Justice in 1968 by Arthur D. Little, Inc.

A concerted effort by atomic energy boosters to silence scientific opposition to nuclear power. Scientists who challenge the establishment find jobs scarce, or else, like Gofman and Tamplin, face a cutback in federal funds. Rep. Chet Holifield, Chairman of the Joint Committee, said of dissenters, “They found out a long time ago they’d better work with us.”
An unabashed attempt by a former AEC commissioner to blackmail several universities where scientists had opposed A-plants by threatening the cutoff of federal assistance. He wrote to those universities, “The acceptance of public funds by an educational institution does entail responsibilities to the US government.”
The fact that the AEC and utilities have large funds to champion atomic energy, while citizen opponents have pennies. The atomic energy industry, unable to secure or pay for insurance for A-plants, enjoys a $500 million insurance policy at taxpayer expense. Moreover, Mrs. Carl says the AEC has prepared at public expense a 3000-page manual available to nuclear energy proponents who face hostile audiences concerned about the environment.
The 26-member Safety and Licensing Board, which is composed largely of AEC personnel, industry representatives and physicists, publicly committed to the expansion of nuclear power. The Shoreham Board includes an employee of Union Carbide, which has a great financial stake in nuclear power, and a scientist from Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.
Evidence uncovered by Rep. Wolff of a direct association between the Brookhaven Laboratory and the Atomic Industrial Forum, an industry group representing atomic energy interests, to publicize arguments against Gofman and Tamplin’s research.
A Suffolk Scientists’ group at the Brookhaven Laboratory created to provide a counterweight to the intervention of the Lloyd Harbor Study Group.
Failure of the AEC, the Department of Defense and LILCO to acknowledge the close proximity of the Nike site until pushed by Rep. Wolff, and by Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, who specializes in AEC affairs.

Given the strength of the forces favoring atomic energy, the Study Group and its allies are decidedly the underdogs in the Shoreham proceedings. But those opposed to the plant believe their efforts will prove worthwhile if adequate attention is focused on the environmental impact of atomic energy and on the way in which cooperation within atomic energy circles can work against the public interest.

This article originally ran in the October 31, 1970 issue of the magazine.