March 19, 2011

∴ Nuclear Me

Hearing the news from Japan this week got me thinking about how I've found myself near a nuclear plant wherever I've lived.

I grew up on Long Island's north shore, about half-way out from the city. (What city? Why, the greatest city on Earth.) At some point I became aware of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, under construction about ten miles from my home.

Shoreham does not have a successful history. A neighbor of ours, employed as a steamfitter building the plant, used to regale my parents with tales about portable generators that somehow found themselves forklifted over a fence. They were gone by the next morning. I recall him driving a nasty old pickup truck during this time. It had the most remarkable stainless steel exhaust system.

My dad and I used to go fishing in his boat on Long Island Sound, sometimes directly off-shore of the plant. The exhausted cooling water would attract fish, and the fish would attract fishermen. Every now and then we'd have to avoid being run down by a commercial boat, dragging his nets through the area. I remember hearing stories of how the water would form a shallow dome over the exhaust port as huge quantities were pumped through the plant during testing. I never saw the dome, but it was amusing to think about. Shoreham was weird in the way of most nuclear plants. Stories grow up around them.

Shoreham wasn't much to look at by day, really just a collection of low structures and a cylindrical containment building. By night, however, it was transformed. LILCO, the local power company building the plant, lit it up like the Sun. Every square inch of the property was flooded with the highest available wattage halogen lamps, making day of night. Its glow was clearly visible across the water in Connecticut. Many evenings of carousing the area ended with my friends and me parked at the boat ramp across Wading River, knocking back a few beers, looking at the spectacle that was the Shoreham plant. We were a little hicky, that way. The plant was licensed for 5%, low-power testing at the time, and I wondered if I was being irradiated as I stood there, leering.

The Shoreham plant containment building remains today as a monument to waste and mismanagement. The nuclear part of the plant was eventually decommissioned and a gas-fired generator installed. The containment had been irradiated by low-level testing and will remain in place until long after we're all pushing up daisies.

The Shoreham plant was also my introduction to municipal hypocrisy. The county legislature eventually discovered and voted that the Island could not effectively be evacuated in the event of a nuclear emergency, and the governor weighed in and forbade state approval of an evacuation plan. Apparently the Island had changed shape overnight.

This new religion wasn't found until well after the local community had taken quite a bit of LILCO's money, for community improvement. There was a new, showplace high school with a very nice library, road improvements and other evidence of the utility's largesse. Local protests against the plant, coming three years before the crisis as Three Mile Island, began after the make-nice-let-us-build-a-nuke-in-your-neighborhood money had been spent. Before TMI gave a greater number of people reason to distrust nuclear energy, but after they took the money. Nice.

I left Long Island after college to begin my career in New Hampshire, where I began hearing stories about the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant, which was about thirty-three miles from my new home.

Seabrook Station was a legend unto itself. Built on New Hampshire's miniscule, 18-mile long seacoast, and just north of the Massachusetts state line, the plant became a focal point for nuclear power protests.

Seabrook's story taught me something about community ignorance. Local communities refused to participate in the evacuation drills required for licensing. The utility used employees, their families and other volunteers to complete the drills. Local and state governments refused to allow local police and fire personnel to drill in rapid-response protocols. The utility went to court. There was no underlying difficulty in evacuating the area, as there was on Long Island. (An Interstate highway runs past the plant a few miles away, and the plant sits on the Atlantic coast with most of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts at its back.) There was only people's underlying distrust of nuclear power. The plant was eventually licensed, lit, and put into use despite the protests.

How well-versed in emergency response were the local fire and EMS personnel after being barred from participation? I have to wonder if there was an unnecessary vacuum of competence for a time after the plant went into full production.

Years later, married, Kelly and I left New Hampshire and found our way south. We settled in a nice community in north-central Virginia and life went on.

Friends bought a lakeside home on nearby Lake Anna a few years later. I got curious about the area. I found it on Google Maps, dug up details and discovered that the lake was artificial. It had been created by a dam built across the North Anna River to serve as, yes, a cooling reservoir for the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station.

Sometimes I feel like I'm being followed. This pair of contained nuclear chain reactions sits about forty miles from our home.

I don't hear much about North Anna. It's shut down for fueling now and then, and re-started. There's a licensing process underway to build a third reactor on the site. Our friends continue to enjoy their lake house and we visit them there from time to time. And there's a half-megawatt electric power distribution line emanating from the plant, running past us about a half-mile behind our home before heading further north. We get our juice from North Anna's atoms.

We could find ourselves in a long line of heavy traffic headed away from its reactors someday, if a calamity befell the plant and the area had to be evacuated. I think we're sufficiently far from them, but I don't know for sure. It's easy to not think about these plants and what consequences might arise from living near them. It is nature's irony that fragile life could hang on something as random as the breeze.

Nuclear power is a good incremental step away from fossil fuels. The containment design used at the Fukushima facility is an old one, a reduced-cost one, a design that should never be used because of the relative ease of a breach. There are twenty-three such plants in America, a minority of a nuclear electric power capability that amounts to 20% of our total production. We literally cannot do without nuclear energy in America.

There are still glaring questions, such as what should we do with the spent fuel? One of the main areas of concern at Fukushima is an evaporated spent-fuel pool that has left poisoned, depleted rods ready to combust. Tonight comes word that the Japanese have succeeded in re-filling that pool. And that radioactive iodine has entered the food chain there. They wouldn't need a pool if they had a safe, centrally located storage facility elsewhere. So just where is elsewhere?