The Truth About Nuclear Power in Utility Reactors

04/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It was in 1996 that I was first contacted by an organization called the Standing for Truth About Radiation (STAR) Foundation. The Long Island-based group, a loose bundle of veterans of the anti-nuclear movement, local artists, businessmen with large investments in second homes on the East End and scientists with a career-long dedication to the issue were attempting to raise awareness about the Brookhaven National Laboratory and its nuclear-powered research facility, the High Flux Beam Reactor.

The reactor operations at Brookhaven were reported to have released billions of gallons of tritiated water into the headwaters of the Peconic River during the period of its operations from 1965 to 1996. BNL, the U.S. Army's former Camp Upton and the site of decades-long research into all things nuclear, had been the base of operations for some of the earliest work on the atomic bomb. A coalition of different community groups had been opposing the HFBR at BNL for years. Pro-business lobbying groups warned that closing the reactor would have dire consequences to the Long Island economy, as national laboratories, with their high-skill, high-paying jobs, were viewed as "sexy" components of any area's business landscape. Opponents of BNL pointed out that levels of soft tissue cancers and rare diseases such as rhabdomyosarcoma were extraordinarily higher adjacent to the water recharge area near the lab. More effectively, the anti-BNL groups pointed out that Long Islanders had already voiced their opinion of having nuclear reactors in the area when they agreed to absorb the unconscionable amount of money necessary to shutter the Shoreham nuclear power plant several years earlier.

The Long Island Lighting Company, one of the most horrifically mismanaged public utilities in U.S. history, had thrown the switch and already gone "online" with a utility reactor on the North Shore of Suffolk County, a decision that represented a game of chicken with the area's rate payers. Once the reactor went "hot", any move to shut it down would surely mean hundreds of millions of dollars extra in decommissioning and decontamination costs. Long Island residents said, "Bring it on." Already the highest utility rate payers in the forty-eight contiguous states, LILCO customers absorbed billions in costs, amortized over several years, and Shoreham closed. Soon after that, then Governor George Pataki set up another darling of Albany politicos, a quasi-public authority (the Long Island Power Authority or LIPA) to, among other things, evacuate LILCO's overpaid executives who were responsible for the Shoreham debacle. All the information you could possibly want on this issue was brilliantly covered by one of the greatest journalists in the area, Karl Grossman.

Shoreham was closed because even the Feds could not argue that Long Island had no effective evacuation plan, a vital issue for people who would have to either bottleneck through the biggest city in the U.S. or swim to Connecticut in the event of some disaster. That fear also applied to BNL. Soon, the HFBR was closed as well.

During that time, I became acquainted with Dr. Ernest Sternglass, whose work (studying the accumulation of ambient radioactive materials which mimic calcium in the developing human fetus and, thus, serve as scientifically effective markers for radiological spikes in the atmosphere) helped to leverage the test ban treaty during President Kennedy's administration. Dr. Sternglass, along with Dr. Jay M. Gould, founded the Radiation and Public Health Project, which I support today. In 1996, during the period where BNL was on one burner, RPHP turned my attention toward the reactor mess in Millstone, Connecticut; Millstone is one of the dirtiest and most often fined reactors in this country. We gathered information about Indian Point, and worried about implications of a containment breach there long before 9/11 heightened that risk. We gathered information about Oak Ridge, Tennessee, The Gaseous Diffusion plant in Piketon, Ohio. The problems with operations at Dresden, Illinois. At Turkey Point in Florida. And we immersed ourselves in the problems surrounding the Oyster Creek facility in Tom's River, New Jersey.

I started going down to Oyster Creek in 1996. I returned there with a 60 Minutes camera crew a couple of years ago. I have a strong and abiding belief that true knowledge of what does and does not go on in Tom's River, as well as in both Trenton and Washington, combined with unbiased knowledge about nuclear power in utility reactors could kill any of the talk about reviving this industry. The truth not only could but would kill it, if it were known and were disseminated in the press fairly.

In my next post I will comment on last Saturday's broadcast of Weekend Edition on NPR and how Scott Simon appallingly allowed Stewart Brand to burble on and on with his outrageous pablum about "the new safe and clean nuclear power." I will tell you some of what I have learned during the years I've worked with RPHP down in Tom's River and how I view some of the efforts I have joined, with people like the tireless and courageous Joe Mangano who now heads RPHP, as some of the most important work I have ever undertaken.