LIPA’s Nuclear Legacy Leaves Sandy’s Survivors in the Dark

Head of Long Island Power Authority Steps Aside as Governor Convenes Special Commission, But Problems Have Deep Roots

The decommissioned Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant still occupies a 58-acre site on Long Island Sound. (photo: Paul Searing via Wikipedia)

As the sun set on Veterans Day, 2012, tens of thousands of homes on New York’s Long Island prepared to spend another night in darkness. The lack of light was not part of any particular memorial or observance; instead, it was the noisome and needless culmination of decades of mismanagement and malfeasance by a power company still struggling to pay for a now-moldering nuclear plant that never provided a single usable kilowatt to the region’s utility customers.

The enterprise in charge of all that darkness bears little resemblance to the sorts of power companies that provide electricity to most Americans–it is not a private energy conglomerate, nor is it really a state- or municipality-owned public utility–but the pain and frustration felt by Long Island residents should be familiar to many. And the tale of how an agency mandated by law to provide “a safer, more efficient, reliable and economical supply of electric energy” failed to deliver any of that is at its very least cautionary, and can likely serve as an object lesson for the entire country.

Almost immediately, the United States will be faced with tough choices about how to create and deliver electrical power. Those choices are defined not just by demand but by a warming climate and an infrastructure already threatened by the changes that climate brings. When one choice, made by a private concern nearly 50 years ago, means weeks of power outages and billions of dollars in repair costs today, it suggests new decisions about America’s energy strategy should be handled with care.

A stormy history

Two weeks after Hurricane-cum-Superstorm Sandy battered the eastern coast of the United States, upwards of 76,000 customers of the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) were still without power. That number is down markedly from the one million LIPA customers (91 percent of LIPA’s total customer base) that lost power as Sandy’s fierce winds, heavy rains and massive storm surge came up the Atlantic Coast on Monday, October 29, and down, too, from the over 300,000 still without service on election day, but at each step of the process, consumers and outside observers alike agreed it was too many waiting too long.

And paying too much. LIPA customers suffer some of the highest utility rates in the country, and yet, the power outages that came with last month’s storm–and a subsequent snowstorm nine days later–while disgraceful, were far from unexpected. The Long Island Power Authority and its corporate predecessor, the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO), have a long track record of service failures and glacial disaster response times dating back to Hurricane Gloria, which hit the region in the autumn of 1985.

After Gloria, when many Long Island homes lost power for two weeks, and again after widespread outages resulted from 2011’s Hurricane Irene, the companies responsible for providing electricity to the residents of most of Nassau and Suffolk Counties, along with parts of the Borough of Queens in New York City, were told to make infrastructure improvements. In 2006, it was reported that LIPA had pledged $20 million annually in grid improvements. But the reality proved to be substantially less–around $12.5 million–while LIPA also cut back on transmission line inspections.

Amidst the current turmoil, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been highly critical of LIPA, calling for the “removal of management” for the “colossal misjudgments” that led to the utility’s failures. Cuomo made similar statements about LIPA and its private, for-profit subcontractor, National Grid, last year after Hurricane Irene. But as another day mercifully dawned on tens of thousands of homes still without electricity over two weeks after Sandy moved inland, the dysfunctional structure in charge of the dysfunctional infrastructure remains largely unchanged.

Which, it must be noted, is especially vexing because Governor Cuomo should not be powerless when it came to making changes to the Long Island Power Authority.

It was Andrew’s father, Governor Mario Cuomo, who oversaw the creation of LIPA in 1985 to clean up the fiscal and physical failures of the Long Island Lighting Company. LILCO’s inability to quickly restore power to hundreds of thousands of customers after Hurricane Gloria met with calls for change quite similar to contemporary outrage. But it was LILCO’s crushing debt that perhaps exacerbated problems with post-Gloria cleanup and absolutely precipitated the government takeover.

The best-laid schemes

It was April 1965 when LILCO’s president announced plans for Long Island’s first commercial nuclear power facility to be built on Long Island Sound near the town of Brookhaven, already home to a complex of research reactors. The 540-megawatt General Electric boiling water reactor (similar in design to those that failed last year in Japan) was estimated to cost $65 million and come online in 1973.

The price of the Shoreham nuclear project quickly ballooned, first, as LILCO proposed additional reactors across Long Island–none of which were ever built–and then as the utility up-rated the original design to 820 megawatts. Further design changes, some mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and construction delays pushed the price tag to $2 billion by the late 1970s.

Because of its proximity to the Brookhaven reactors, LILCO expected little public activism against Shoreham, but local opposition steadily grew throughout the ’70s. The Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and environmentalist Barry Commoner all raised early objections. After a meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979, Shoreham saw 15,000 gather in protest outside its gates, an action that resulted in 600 arrests.

Three Mile Island led to new NRC rules requiring nuclear facilities to coordinate with civic authorities on emergency plans for accidents necessitating the evacuation of surrounding communities. LILCO was forced to confront the fact that, for Shoreham, the only routes for evacuation were already clogged highways that bottlenecked at a few bridges into Manhattan, 60 miles to the west.

In 1983, the government of Suffolk County, where Shoreham was located, determined that there was no valid plan for evacuating its population. New York Governor Mario Cuomo followed suit, ordering state regulators not to approve the LILCO-endorsed evacuation plan.

Still, as Shoreham’s reactor was finally completed in 1984, 11 years late and nearly 100-times over budget, the NRC granted LILCO permission for a low-power test.

But 1985’s Hurricane Gloria further eroded trust in LILCO, and the next year, the Chernobyl disaster further galvanized opposition to a nuclear plant. As LILCO’s debts mounted, it became apparent that a new structure was needed to deliver dependable power to Long Island residents.

The power to act

The Long Island Power Act of 1985 created LIPA to assume LILCO’s assets, and a subsidiary of this municipal authority, also known as LIPA, acquired LILCO’s electric transmission and distribution systems a year later. The radioactive but moribund Shoreham plant was purchased by the state for one dollar, and later decommissioned at a cost of $186 million. (Shoreham’s turbines were sent to Ohio’s Davis-Besse nuclear facility; its nuclear fuel was sent to the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant, with LILCO/LIPA paying Philadelphia Electric Company $50 million to take the fuel off its hands.)

The $6 billion Shoreham folly was passed on to consumers in the form of a three-percent surcharge on utility bills, to be charged for 30 years. Service on LILCO’s $7 billion in debt, half of which is a direct result of Shoreham, makes up 16 percent of every LIPA bill.

But LIPA itself is not really a utility company. Its roughly 100 employees are low on public utilities experience and, as the New York Times reports, high on political patronage. The majority of LILCO’s non-nuclear power plants were sold to a newly created company called KeySpan (itself a product of a merger of LILCO holdings with Brooklyn Union Gas), and maintenance of LIPA’s grid was subcontracted to KeySpan.

KeySpan was in turn purchased by British power company National Grid in 2006.

The situation is now further complicated, as National Grid lost out to Public Service Enterprise Group, New Jersey’s largest electricity provider, in a bid to continue its maintenance contract. PSEG takes over the upkeep of LIPA’s grid in 2014.

A commission on transmission

On Tuesday, Governor Cuomo the Younger announced formation of a Moreland Commission–a century-old New York State provision that allows for an investigative body with subpoena power–to explore ways of reforming or restructuring LIPA, including the possibility of integrating with the state’s New York Power Authority. And just hours later, LIPA’s COO and acting CEO, Michael Hervey, announced he would leave the utility at the end of the year.

But the problems look more systemic than one ouster or one commission, no matter how august, can correct. Andrew Cuomo’s inability to appoint new LIPA board members could owe as much to entrenched patronage practices as to political pre-positioning. State Republicans, overwhelmingly the beneficiaries of LIPA posts, are engaged in a behind-the-scenes standoff with the Democratic Governor over whom to name as a permanent LIPA director. Others see Cuomo as too willing to accept the political cover conveyed by not having his appointees take control of the LIPA board.

Still, no matter who runs LIPA, the elaborate public-private Russian-doll management structure makes accountability, not to mention real progress, hard to fathom. Perhaps it would be crazy to expect anything but regular disasters from a grid maintained by a foreign-owned, lame-duck, for-profit corporation under the theoretical direction of a leaderless board of political appointees, funded by some of the highest electricity rates in the country. And those rates, by the way, are not subject to the same public utilities commission oversight that would regulate a private utility, nor do they seem sensitive to any democratic checks and balances.

And all of this was created to bail out a utility destabilized by the money pit that is nuclear power.

The truth has consequences

As nighttime temperatures dip below freezing, it will be cold comfort, indeed, for those still without the power to light or heat their homes to learn that money they have personally contributed to help LIPA with its nuclear debt could have instead paid for the burying of vulnerable transmission lines and the storm-proofing of electrical transformers. But the unfortunate results of that trade-off hold a message for the entire country.

It was true (if not obvious) in 1965, it was true in 1985, and it is still true today: nuclear power, beyond being dirty and dangerous, is an absurdly expensive way to generate electricity. This is especially apropos now, in the wake of a superstorm thought to be a harbinger of things to come as the climate continues to warm.

In recent years, the nuclear industry has latched on to global warming as its latest raison d’être, claiming, quite inaccurately, that nuclear is a low-greenhouse gas answer to growing electrical needs. While the entire lifecycle of nuclear power is decidedly not climate friendly, it is perhaps equally as important to consider that nuclear plants take too long and cost too much to build. The time, as well as the federal and consumer dollars, would be better spent on efficiency, conservation, and truly renewable, truly climate-neutral energy projects.

That is not a hypothetical; that is the lesson of LIPA, and the unfortunate reality–still–for far too many New York residents.

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Oyster Creek Nuclear Alert: As Floodwaters Fall, More Questions Arise

Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in pre-flood mode. (photo: NRCgov)

New Jersey’s Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station remains under an official Alert, a day-and-a-half after the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission declared the emergency classification due to flooding triggered by Hurricane Sandy. An Alert is the second category on the NRC’s four-point emergency scale. Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the federal regulator, said that floodwaters around the plant’s water intake structure had receded to 5.7 feet at 2:15 PM EDT Tuesday, down from a high of 7.4 feet reached just after midnight.

Water above 6.5 to 7 feet was expected to compromise Oyster Creek’s capacity to cool its reactor and spent fuel pool, according to the NRC. An “Unusual Event,” the first level of emergency classification, was declared Monday afternoon when floodwaters climbed to 4.7 feet.

Though an emergency pump was brought in when water rose above 6.5 feet late Monday, the NRC and plant owner Exelon have been vague about whether it was needed. As of this writing, it is still not clear if Oyster Creek’s heat transfer system is functioning as designed.

As flooding continued and water intake pumps were threatened, plant operators also floated the idea that water levels in the spent fuel pool could be maintained with fire hoses. Outside observers, such as nuclear consultant Arnie Gundersen, suspected Oyster Creek might have accomplished this by repurposing its fire suppression system (and Reuters later reported the same), though, again, neither Exelon nor regulators have given details.

Whether the original intake system or some sort of contingency is being used, it appears the pumps are being powered by backup diesel generators. Oyster Creek, like the vast majority of southern New Jersey, lost grid power as Sandy moved inland Monday night. In the even of a site blackout, backup generators are required to provide power to cooling systems for the reactor–there is no such mandate, however, for spent fuel pools. Power for pool cooling is expected to come either from the grid or the electricity generated by the plant’s own turbines.

As the NRC likes to remind anyone who will listen, Oyster Creek’s reactor was offline for fueling and maintenance. What regulators don’t add, however, is that the reactor still needs cooling for residual decay heat, and that the fuel pool likely contains more fuel and hotter fuel as a result of this procedure, which means it is even more at risk for overheating. And, perhaps most notably, with the reactor shutdown, it is not producing the electricity that could be used to keep water circulating through the spent fuel pool.

If that sounds confusing, it is probably not by accident. Requests for more and more specific information (most notably by the nuclear watchdog site SimplyInfo) from Exelon and the NRC remain largely unanswered.

Oyster Creek was not the only nuclear power plant dealing with Sandy-related emergencies. As reported here yesterday, Nine Mile Point Unit 1 and Indian Point Unit 3–both in New York–each had to scram because of grid interruptions triggered by Monday’s superstorm. In addition, one of New Jersey’s Salem reactors shut down when four of six condenser circulators (water pumps that aid in heat transfer) failed “due to a combination of high river level and detritus from Hurricane Sandy’s transit.” Salem vented vapor from what are considered non-nuclear systems, though as noted often, that does not mean it is completely free of radioactive components. (Salem’s other reactor was offline for refueling.)

Limerick (PA) reactors 1 and 2, Millstone (CT) 3, and Vermont Yankee all reduced power output in response to Superstorm Sandy. The storm also caused large numbers of emergency warning sirens around both Oyster Creek and the Peach Bottom (PA) nuclear plant to fail.

If you thought all of these problems would cause nuclear industry representatives to lay low for a while, well, you’d be wrong:

“Our facilities’ ability to weather the strongest Atlantic tropical storm on record is due to rigorous precautions taken in advance of the storm,” Marvin Fertel, chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group, said yesterday in a statement.

Fertel went on to brag that of the 34 reactors it said were in Sandy’s path, 24 survived the storm without incident.

Or, to look at it another way, during a single day, the heavily populated eastern coast of the Unite States saw multiple nuclear reactors experience problems. And that’s in the estimation of the nuclear industry’s top lobbyist.

Or, should we say, the underestimation? Of the ten reactors not in Fertel’s group of 24, seven were already offline, and the industry is not counting them. So, by Fertel’s math, Oyster Creek does not figure against what he considers success. Power reductions and failed emergency warning systems are also not factored in, it appears.

This storm–and the trouble it caused for America’s nuclear fleet–comes in the context of an 18-month battle to improve nuclear plant safety in the wake of the multiple meltdowns and continuing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. Many of the rules and safety upgrades proposed by a US post-Fukushima taskforce are directly applicable to problems resulting from Superstorm Sandy. Improvements to flood preparation, backup power regimes, spent fuel storage and emergency notification were all part of the taskforce report–all of which were theoretically accepted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But nuclear industry pushback, and stonewalling, politicking and outright defiance by pro-industry commissioners has severely slowed the execution of post-Fukushima lessons learned.

The acolytes of atom-splitting will no doubt point to the unprecedented nature of this massive hybrid storm, echoing the “who could have predicted” language heard from so many after the earthquake and tsunami that started the Fukushima disaster. Indeed, such language has already been used–though, granted, in a non-nuclear context–by Con Edison officials discussing massive power outages still afflicting New York City:

At a Consolidated Edison substation in Manhattan’s East Village, a gigantic wall of water defied elaborate planning and expectations, swamped underground electrical equipment, and left about 250,000 lower Manhattan customers without power.

Last year, the surge from Hurricane Irene reached 9.5 feet at the substation. ConEd figured it had that covered.

The utility also figured the infrastructure could handle a repeat of the highest surge on record for the area — 11 feet during a hurricane in 1821, according to the National Weather Service. After all, the substation was designed to withstand a surge of 12.5 feet.

With all the planning, and all the predictions, planning big was not big enough. Sandy went bigger — a surge of 14 feet.

“Nobody predicted it would be that high,” said ConEd spokesman Allan Drury.

In a decade that has seen most of the warmest years on record and some of the era’s worst storms, there needs to be some limit on such excuses. Nearly a million New York City residents (including this reporter) are expected to be without electricity through the end of the week. Residents in the outer boroughs and millions in New Jersey could be in the dark for far longer. Having a grid that simply survives a category 1 hurricane without a Fukushima-sized nuclear disaster is nothing to crow about.

The astronomical cost of restoring power to millions of consumers is real, as is the potential danger still posed by a number of crippled nuclear power plants. The price of preventing the current storm-related emergencies from getting worse is also not a trivial matter, nor are the radioactive isotopes vented with every emergency reactor scram. All of that should be part of the nuclear industry’s report card; all of that should raise eyebrows and questions the next time nuclear is touted as a clean, safe, affordable energy source for a climate change-challenged world.

UPDATE: The AP is reporting that the NRC has now lifted the emergency alert at Oyster Creek.