Floating Nuclear Plants?

Akademik Lomonoso, photo Wikipedia.

I first got to learn about PSEG (Public Service Enterprise Group) in the early 1970s driving down Dune Road in the Hamptons of Long Island, east of New York City, and there, next to Hot Dog Beach, was a weather station with various devices. It was surrounded by a chain link fence with a sign saying U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and Brookhaven National Laboratory on it.

BNL was established on Long Island in 1947 by the AEC largely to develop civilian uses for nuclear technology. The AEC grew out of the Manhattan Project. At BNL, scientists and engineers sought nuclear projects in addition to making atomic weapons.

I was doing investigative reporting at the daily Long Island Press and in that capacity called the PR office at BNL to be informed that the weather station was set up because “this company from New Jersey”—PSEG—planned to construct a string of “floating nuclear power plants” in the Atlantic Ocean starting off the coast of southern New Jersey and extending to 20 miles off the southern coast of Long Island.

I was told that the station monitored how, in the event of an accident at one of the plants, a radioactive cloud might move. A 75-foot landing craft was on loan from the Navy, and also aircraft and a trawler were being used. Clouds of smoke were discharged, and the PR representative said it was determined that because of prevailing winds coming from the southwest, the smoke mainly floated to Long Island.

Upon finding I was working on this, Dave Starr, editor of the Long Island Press and national editor of the Newhouse newspaper chain, telephoned and said I should “play down” the story. “I don’t want to get people upset,” said Starr. This was among my earliest experiences in finding out how nuclear issues are hot media potatoes.

My article was published, but not on Page One as most of my pieces as an investigative reporter at The Press began, but inside the paper. The episode was featured in a 1980 book—I started writing it the day of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident in 1979—titled “Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power.” It is in a chapter “How We Got So Far” that includes details about media treatment of nuclear issues. (A download of the book is available for free on my website www.karlgrossman.com, courtesy of the publisher.)

Also, in the book is how the floating nuclear power plant scheme began. In PSEG literature it was credited to Richard Eckert, a PSEG vice president, who, it said, while taking a shower in 1969 thought the sea could supply the huge amounts of water nuclear power plants need as coolant.

PSEG got Westinghouse to agree to build them. Westinghouse partnered with Tenneco in a company called Offshore Power Systems which constructed a massive construction facility on Blount Island off Jacksonville, Florida. The floating nuclear power plants were to be towed up the Atlantic into position.

The book devotes several pages to an Offshore Power Systems sales brochure and also the announcement of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (which succeeded the AEC in 1974) that it was issuing a “manufacturing license” for the floating nuclear power plants.

However, the scheme went belly-up with Offshore Power Systems losing $180 million.

Meanwhile in the 1970s, the Long Island Lighting Company, working closely with scientists and engineers at BNL (and Phyllis Vineyard, the wife of BNL’s director, George Vineyard, on LILCO’s board of directors) was moving ahead with a plan to construct seven to eleven nuclear power plants on Long Island. The plan aimed to turn Long Island, in the parlance of nuclear promoters at the time, into a “nuclear park.” From Long Island, LILCO would furnish nuclear-generated electricity to the U.S. Northeast.

There were many strategies used to challenge the first nuclear power plant LILCO was building as part of this scheme, at Shoreham on the Long Island Sound. These included demonstrations—the biggest came on June 3, 1979 involving 15,000 people at the Shoreham site, the largest rally ever held on Long Island to this date, with 600 arrested— and political action, grassroots organizing and litigation. But the one that stopped the opening of Shoreham and the “nuclear park” plan was creation in 1986 of the Long Island Power Authority.

LIPA as a state entity would have the power of eminent domain, of condemnation. It had the clout to eliminate LILCO as a corporate entity if it didn’t agree to give up Shoreham and end its nuclear power drive. That strategy worked and the Shoreham plant, after weeks of problem-riddled testing and reaching a cost of between $6.5 and $7.5 billion (in LILCO’s 1966 press release announcing Shoreham, its cost was put “in the $65-75 million range.” A facsimile of that press release appears in my 1986 book “Power Crazy.”

In 1992, Shoreham was sold to New York State for $1. It was thereafter decommissioned as a nuclear facility, its nuclear innards removed. LILCO’s CEO in its last years was William Catacosinos, former assistant director of BNL. LILCO went defunct in 1998.

Also emphasized in LIPA’s creation was a stress on green energy.

The early vision of LIPA was that it would run Long Island’s electric grid itself as a non-profit public power utility and do this through a democratic process with a board of elected trustees—like a public power utility on the other side of the United States, the California Municipal Utility District in Sacramento, California, SMUD, had been doing and is still doing.

Under SMUD and following a public referendum, the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant in Herald, California—25 miles from downtown Sacramento—was shut down.

However, New York Governor Mario Cuomo cancelled having elections for LIPA trustees, and under his successor, Governor George Pataki, not having LIPA trustees elected was formalized into law. LIPA trustees instead are appointed by New York State government’s top officials with the governor naming most of them and the rest by the speaker of the State Assembly and the leader of the State Senate.

Meanwhile, instead of operating the electric grid itself like its model SMUD, a succession of private companies has been contracted to run the grid for LIPA.

In 2012, Mario Cuomo’s son, Andrew Cuomo, as New York State’s governor, brought in New Jersey-based PSEG as the contractor to operate the electric grid for LIPA. That came after major failures of LIPA’s then contractor, London, England-based National Grid especially when Superstorm Sandy hit Long Island in 2012 and most LIPA customers were left without electricity. Then, when Hurricane Isaiah struck in 2020, with PSEG as LIPA’s contractor, more than half of LIPA customers lost power, many for as long as a week.

And a Legislative Commission on the Future of the Long Island Power Authority, a bipartisan eight-member panel was established, co-chaired by New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor. It concluded last year after an extensive investigation and many public hearings, that LIPA should indeed operate the electric system on Long Island itself and not contract out the work, that it should be a fully public utility.

Thiele stressed that LIPA’s “third-party contractor” model was the only one of its kind for a utility in the nation. With issuance of the commission’s report, he said: “This third-party arrangement has failed time and again—and will fail again and again.”

Thiele has for years also introduced legislation for LIPA to have an elected board of trustees, which did not succeed in the New York State Legislature.

The commission’s report determined that cutting out LIPA’s contractor and “eliminating the fee paid to PSEG” would provide a savings of $50 million to $80 million annually. It also emphasized how it would provide far greater “public accountability.”

There was “strong support” in the State Legislature initially for the commission’s conclusion, Thiele said. But, in recent weeks, he has said action on the commission’s report “has stalled” because of “the failure of any member of the State Senate” to introduce a needed companion bill and because of “the silence” of current New York State Governor Kathy Hochul.

The “stall” has come amid intense lobbying of state officials by PSEG to continue its contract of operating the electric grid for LIPA. “PSEG has been spending millions of dollars on lobbying,” said Thiele.

Also, a lot of “the same groups and people that supported the Shoreham nuclear plant” were collaborating with PSEG in its push to keep its LIPA contract, he said.

As Mark Harrington, who covers energy for the Long Island newspaper Newsday, has recently reported: “If the state legislative measure were to fail—as seems increasingly likely—and LIPA is not able to put the contract out to bid to find a new operator in coming weeks, it would be a victory for New Jersey-based PSEG.”

PSEG didn’t get anywhere with its floating nuclear power plant scheme, but it is the major nuclear utility in New Jersey. It operates the Salem 1 and 2 and Hope Creek nuclear plants.

And it is as bullish about nuclear power as was LILCO.

Its three nuclear power plants in New Jersey produce “air pollution-free energy,” says PSEG online. And as to radioactivity, “It is important to understand that ionizing radiation from nuclear power plants is the same as ionizing radiation from other possible sources, such as cosmic radiation, radiation, medical treatments and the naturally occurring background radiation from the soil and building materials….The sun and stars give off radiation called cosmic radiation and most of us receive about 27 millirem a year from this source.”

However, any amount of radiation is dangerous—“background” radiation causes a certain amount of cancer. What are considered “routine” emissions from plants add to that.

Even the staunchly pro-nuclear U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in its “Reactor Concept Manual” notes: “Whether the source of radiation is natural or man-made, whether it is a small dose of radiation or a large dose, there will be some biological effects.” Or as the NRC’s “Backgrounder on Biological Effects of Radiation,” states “regulations assume any amount of radiation may pose some risk. They aim to minimize doses to radiation works and the public. The international community bases standards for radiation protection on something called the linear, no-threshold model. The idea is that risk increases as the dose increases. And there is no threshold below which radiation doses are safe.”

There is no mention by PSEG, of course, about the large amounts of radiation released in the succession of major nuclear power plant disasters that have occurred—at the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power plants.

And there is no mention by PSEG of how green energy—led by solar and wind—is now far less expensive than nuclear power.

“I don’t hold PSEG in high regard,” says Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, who for years has been battling PSEG on nuclear and environmental issues. Kills of billions of fish annually by the Salem plants have been a major issue. She says: “I think PSEG is a purely profit-making venture that throws money at government entities and government officials and also tries to manipulate through messaging, claiming it is pro-environment.”

Van Rossum is the woman behind the Green Amendment, an initiative to have states and the federal government enact constitutional amendments declaring that “each person shall have the right to clean air and water and a healthful environment.” She was on Long Island last year giving the keynote address at the Docs Equinox celebration honoring Earth Day. With her help, a Green Amendment for New York was approved by 70 percent of voters in a 2021 referendum and is now part of New York State’s Constitution.

Meanwhile, LIPA and the people of Long Island might continue to be saddled with this nuclear-focused utility from Newark, New Jersey—unless, as LILCO and the Long Island “nuclear park” scheme were stopped, its presence on Long Island as LIPA’s contractor is ended.

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet, and the Beyond Nuclear handbook, The U.S. Space Force and the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war in space. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.