Friday, September 23, 2005

Speaking of Houston, a blast from the past...

The chaotic evacuation of a major metropolitan area brings to mind an event from over 25 years ago: the controversy over the Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island, NY.

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...

Then, fatefully for Shoreham, the 1978 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.

The "liberal" newspaper Newsday supported Shoreham up to its demise (as you can tell from the tone of the article quoted above).

But the "activists" were right: evacuating a densely populated area like Long Island was an exercise in futility; it is a cautionary tale for those stuck in topographically and climate challenged areas like Houston are only now learning.

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