Can an accident of the severity of Chernobyl happen here? One who emphatically thinks so is journalist Karl Grossman, author of this new book about Long Island Lighting Co. (LILCO) and its management of one of America's most controversial nuclear projects. "If there is to be a disaster like Chernobyl--or worse--in the United States," Grossman writes, "LILCO's Shoreham plant is a prime candidate."
Readers wishing to know why may be disappointed, however. This book was actually written and all set to be printed before the Soviet accident, an event that caused the publishers to pull it off press, retitle it and ask that a few pages discussing Chernobyl be added.
This is a pity, because serious issues are raised for U.S. nuclear plants by the Soviet accident, particularly for Shoreham, whose design is closer to Chernobyl's than are other U.S. boiling-water reactor types. Contrary to innumerable news reports at the time of the accident, Chernobyl did have containment structures. Key portions of that reactor were in containment designed to withstand as much pressure as many U.S. containments can withstand. But Chernobyl's containment relied heavily on "pressure suppression pools" similar to Shoreham's to prevent breach of containment and release of radioactivity. And this scheme has long been controversial and deserves, along with a series of other issues relevant to Shoreham, fresh review in light of the recent tragic events in the Ukraine.
Grossman's book does not provide that fresh review. It does provide, however, a good deal of information about one of the most interesting spectacles in the troubled history of U.S. commercial nuclear power. It tells the story of how a nuclear utility managed to bring itself to the brink of bankruptcy while racking up cost overruns of 7,600%. The reader is told the strange tale of how this atomic plant may never operate because it was built without anyone first trying to figure out how Long Island could possibly be evacuated in case of an accident. And the book has much to say about how the Reagan Administration has attempted to impose Shoreham on the people of New York over the objections of the local authorities.
One of the prime paradoxes of the Reagan years has been the Administration's eloquent rhetoric about returning power to state and local governments. In no area is that contradiction between rhetoric and practice more apparent than in the nuclear power field, where the Administration has used and, according to Grossman, abused federal authority to attempt to bypass laws it does not like and seize for itself powers given to state and local governments, all in an attempt to put into operation nuclear power plants that the people they are to serve do not appear to want.
Federal regulations require an operable emergency plan in case of accident before a nuclear plant can be licensed to operate. It is up to state and local officials to prepare plans for evacuation of off-site areas. Because of the unique situation of Shoreham (it is, after all, on an island), those officials have concluded that a realistic emergency plan cannot be created. The geography is such, for example, that for some accident sequences, many people would have to evacuate toward the plant they are attempting to flee, a clearly unworkable situation.
Once state and local governments had concluded that an operable evacuation plan could not be prepared, the granting of an operating permit was prohibited by law. The NRC's licensing and appeal boards, as well as the New York Supreme Court, have so ruled. But these decisions have not stopped the Reagan Administration: Grossman details the manifold ways in which, undaunted, the Administration continues to try to get Shoreham licensed.
While the book touches on many other issues about Shoreham that have received public attention over the years, it relies to an unfortunate extent on newspaper clippings as its prime sources. The writing suffers from a polemical tone and weak organization, at times appearing as though the book were not written at all in the traditional sense but rather compiled of quotations stored in a personal computer and strung together with the computer's note-taking program.
If LILCO succeeds in getting Shoreham licensed without a workable emergency plan, U.S. nuclear power will be at an important turning point. At least as important will be whether the domestic nuclear industry truly learns the lessons of Chernobyl. The story of Chernobyl's relevance to U.S. nuclear power, however, is a story still to be told, even as the Shoreham tale is a story that awaits a better telling.