Suffolk Closeup: Rejecting nuclear power

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster has caused several nations to say no to nuclear power, mainly through elections, referenda and protests. But the position of the U.S. government, including the federal officials who represent Long Island, is different. Despite Fukushima, as U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer says, “I’m still willing to look at nuclear.”

Germany is closing its nuclear plants after huge, indeed historic election victories by the anti-nuclear Greens and major demonstrations. Italy is rejecting nuclear power after a referendum in which an awesome 94 percent of voters balloted “no” to atomic energy. Switzerland, after referenda and protests, will phase out nuclear energy.

Even the prime minister of Japan, a country that has been heavily committed to nuclear, declared last week: “Japan should aim for a society that does not depend on nuclear energy.” Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that, with Fukushima, “I came to realize the risk of nuclear energy is too intense.”

Importantly, he called for the use of safe, clean, renewable energy technologies led by solar and wind to replace nuclear, as have officials in Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Major studies in recent years, including by the UN, have determined that these now advanced technologies, the costs of which have plummeted, have the potential to provide the world’s energy.

Since Fukushima, the stance of the U.S. government has been in “sharp contrast” to the direction taken by these other nations, notes Kevin Kamps of the organization Beyond Nuclear ( Officials in Washington are “living in a bubble,” he says. This has much to do with the continued intense lobbying by the nuclear industry and the massive campaign contributions it provides.

President Barack Obama has not only continued his support of nuclear power, a reversal of the critical position he took during his election campaign, but since Fukushima has renewed his call for $36 billion in taxpayer-based loan guarantees to construct new nuclear plants.

Among officials in Washington who represent Long Island, Congressman Tim Bishop of Southampton told us last week, “The Fukushima disaster reinforces my view that nuclear facilities should be sited in locations that take into account major population centers, the potential effects of natural disasters, and evacuation strategies. I have consistently opposed siting a nuclear facility on Long Island because a speedy evacuation is impossible.” But, he said, he still believes “nuclear power can play a role in a balanced energy portfolio.”

Congressman Steve Israel of Huntington said, “We must ensure that our permitting standards, our safety standards and our technology are strong enough and robust enough so that nuclear power doesn’t result in the kinds of dangers they experienced in Japan.”

And Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said: “I want to ensure that all of our nuclear facilities everywhere in America are safe. We need to have the best oversight and accountability possible.”

The positions of federal representatives are disappointing to Suffolk officials opposed to nuclear power. Legislator Jay Schneiderman of Montauk said, “I don’t think the U.S. is acting correctly after what happened in Japan.” Legislator Ed Romaine of Center Moriches, whose district includes Shelter Island, said, “Germany showed tremendous courage as a nation when they determined they would move away from nuclear power completely. There are much safer, less expensive sources of energy.” 
Having federal representatives of Long Island backing nuclear power — while here local officials have been against it — isn’t new. During much of the construction of the now shuttered Shoreham nuclear plant, Congressman William Carney of Hauppauge advocated it and nuclear power in general. Since his departure from Congress, he has made millions as a lobbyist in Washington for the nuclear industry, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

Polls show that, since Fukushima, a growing number of people in the U.S. — more than a majority — are against nuclear power. How can this be translated politically?

Meanwhile, on Long Island, Priscilla Star of Montauk, through the Coalition Against Nukes (CAN), is organizing coordinated protests throughout the nation, including in Manhattan on October 1. “We have to show Washington where the people stand on deadly nuclear power and what we have learned from the Fukushima catastrophe. Time’s up, Washington!” said Ms. Star last week. She can be reached at [email protected] or at 631-680-5163.