Lights Out at Shoreham

Anti-nuclear activism spurs the closing of a new $6 billion plant

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It was only concrete and steel, after all. A tangled mass of pipes and circuitry wrapped around a cavernous core of superheated water. A machine to harness the breakneck energy released when atoms are split in chain reactions, and to channel that energy into the prosaic chore of lighting lights and heating homes.

But the Shoreham Nuclear Power Station was never just a machine. Not to the people of Long Island, who made the 25-year saga of the doomed plant on Brookhaven's north shore the defining political struggle of the Island's modern era. Shoreham launched an anti-authoritarian brand of citizen activism that transformed local politics, especially in Suffolk County, and against all odds vanquished the massed power of the federal government, Wall Street and the electric utility industry, preventing a completed and fully licensed nuclear power plant from operating for the only time in American history.

The chain reaction set off by the Shoreham fight rippled far beyond the confines of the plant itself, and even beyond the nuclear industry whose decline it came to symbolize. By the time Shoreham was fully decommissioned on Oct. 12, 1994, its $6 billion price tag -- about 85 times higher than the original estimate -- had nearly wrecked the regional economy by saddling Long Island with some of the highest electric rates in the nation.

The Shoreham reactor never produced a kilowatt of commercial power, but it proved to be an accomplished breeder of cynicism and distrust. Like Frankenstein's monster, Shoreham ultimately destroyed its own progenitor, the Long Island Lighting Co., and forever changed the way Long Islanders view authority. Born in an era of boundless optimism, even naivete, about the future, Shoreham died a slow and tortuous death at a time when Long Islanders were finally facing the consequences of supercharged growth, and weren't liking much of what they saw.

"The pattern changed, and on Long Island a lot of that is because of Shoreham and the arrogance of LILCO," said veteran planner Lee Koppelman, the director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at the State University at Stony Brook. "There's a much greater cynicism toward institutions, and the citizens have become far more sophisticated. They don't take things at face value anymore, with some justification."

In 1965, when LILCO first announced its intention to build a nuclear plant somewhere in Suffolk County, elected officials fervently embraced the project. Within a year, LILCO had bought a 455-acre site between the sparsely populated hamlets of Shoreham and Wading River, and was declaring its new plant would be on line by 1973, at a cost of $65 million-$75 million.

Then, LILCO made the first of many mistakes. Swept away by the enthusiastic response to Shoreham and the nuclear boosterism of the federal Atomic Energy Commission, and mindful that demand for power was rising by more than 10 percent per year on Long Island, LILCO bought land for a second nuclear plant, this time in affluent Lloyd Harbor. Appalled, the peninsula's residents organized a well-funded opposition effort that by 1969 had killed the proposal.

But LILCO remained as enamored as ever with the technology that proponents famously predicted would produce power "too cheap to meter." In 1968, LILCO decided to increase the size of Shoreham from 540 to 820 megawatts. That decision -- and a plan to build two more reactors in Jamesport that never got off the drawing board -- delayed the timetable and ballooned the costs of Shoreham. Most important, the delays provided crucial time for anti-nuclear activism to spread beyond Lloyd Harbor and take root across Long Island.

The company's demeanor didn't help its case. "Early in the game, the opposition was treated sort of disdainfully," remembers Ira Freilicher, a former LILCO vice president who served as the company's chief spokesman and Shoreham strategist. "We handled them in a more confrontational and patronizing way than we should have. It was an arrogance on our part."

LILCO was similarly its own worst enemy in its inept management of Shoreham's construction. By the late 1970s, the plant's price tag was approaching $2 billion, mostly because of astonishingly low worker productivity as well as design changes ordered by federal regulators.

Then, fatefully for Shoreham, the 1979 Three Mile Island reactor accident in Pennsylvania galvanized the anti-nuclear movement nationwide, and Shoreham became a focal point. On a rainy Sunday in June, 1979, 15,000 protesters showed up at Shoreham for the largest demonstration in Long Island history. Police made 571 arrests. Meanwhile, Three Mile Island prompted federal regulators to declare that operators of nuclear plants would have to work out evacuation plans in cooperation with state and local governments.

As opposition spread and electric rates soared, big cracks developed in what was formerly a united pro-Shoreham front among Long Island's political and business leaders. A key turning point came on Feb. 17, 1983, when the Suffolk Legislature flatly declared in a 15-1 vote that the county could not be safely evacuated. A few minutes before that vote, New York's newly elected governor, Mario Cuomo, ordered state officials not to approve any LILCO-sponsored evacuation plan.

"That's the day that everything crystalized and came together," remembers Wayne Prospect, the first anti-Shoreham member of the county legislature. "You felt that we were at least in the game, and that the county, with the state, at least had a fighting chance."

Although its own projections were now questioning whether the region really needed Shoreham's electricity, LILCO plowed ahead and managed to complete Shoreham in 1984, winning federal permission for low-power tests the following year. But by the late 1980s, the evacuation fight was still delaying an operating license for the plant, and anti-LILCO fervor was spreading, fueled in part by anger over the utility's poor performance in restoring power after Hurricane Gloria struck in 1985. Finally, the state Legislature created the Long Island Power Authority as a vehicle to close Shoreham and take over the company.

On Feb. 28, 1989, after more than two years of negotiations and abortive deals, Cuomo and LILCO chairman William J. Catacosinos signed off on an agreement that shuttered the plant forever but made ratepayers responsible for most of Shoreham's cost.

Even after Shoreham was taken apart, it remained a towering presence on the political landscape of Long Island. In 1995, LILCO's sky-high rates, and residual public anger over Shoreham, prodded Cuomo's successor, George Pataki, to reverse himself and broker a partial public takeover of LILCO by LIPA that was finally completed last month. But electric rates are still among the nation's highest and Pataki's LILCO takeover remains a major controversy.

Evidently, Long Island isn't finished hating Shoreham yet.

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