Growing up on Long Island, Shoreham was always more of a word than a place. It meant “nuclear”. Not a coastal town above scenic 25A on my beloved Long Island. Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant. As a child of the 80’s that was the extent of my understanding of this thing called Shoreham. Most people remember Shoreham as the focal point of a historic clash between anti-nuclear advocates and the embattled Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) that ended in the decommissioning of both the plant and the commission itself. Long Island was left with a structural eyesore, $6billion in debt, a new authority called LIPA and the highest electric rates in the country.
Today, twenty-two years after the death of our nuclear power potential, those opposed to the plant may have their final moment of vindication as we witness the horrors unfolding in Japan as a result of the earthquake and tsunami.
Japan is in the middle of a natural disaster biblical in scale. Mother Nature unleashed a furor that leveled coastal areas and infrastructure as though they were architectural renderings and not the real thing. Home to some of the greatest engineers and most innovative structures ever conceived in the modern era, Japan is struggling to contain the very worst of all human fears: nuclear fallout. On the other side of the world it has Long Islanders whispering, “there but for the grace of God…”
Two years ago the Long Island Press news team visited the decommissioned plant and walked with the ghosts of our past through the core of the power plant. (Click here to view the cover story) It was part of a twenty-year anniversary retrospective on the closing of the plant. As a young, eager staff we walked wide-eyed through the cavernous structure in disbelief. It was something out of an old sci-fi movie. It didn’t seem real. The officials from LIPA responsible for upkeep on the property guided us through the maze of concrete tunnels, into the control room and even into the core of what was once the reactor. By this time we were all uncharacteristically silent and in awe.
In a post 9-11 world, our guides took great pains to explain how the plant was engineered to withstand the impact of a fully-fueled 747, the largest passenger plane ever constructed at the time. We didn’t think to ask what might happen if as storm the size of the “Long Island Express” hurricane in 1938 blew through again or, God forbid, an earthquake followed by a tsunami. There are, after all, limits to the human imagination. Mother Nature’s imagination, on the other hand, seems to know no bounds.
As we struggle with our energy past and future and mine the resources of the planet to feed our insatiable desire for economic and human population expansion, we are witnessing yet another reminder that the eyes of the world may be bigger than our collective stomach. Tonight I’ll be raising a glass to Richie Kessel and those who had the foresight to know that just because you can build something it doesn’t always mean you should. Six billion dollars and high electric rates now seem like a small price to pay. Then I will say a quiet prayer, alongside six billion others, for those who lost their lives at the hands of a fate they couldn’t control. May this disaster be over and forever be categorized as “natural” and not be prolonged by something manmade.