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Suffolk Closeup: Just 23 miles away

Suffolk County is nuclear-free. Strong public and local and state government opposition stopped the Shoreham nuclear power plant from going into operation, and the two nuclear reactors at Brookhaven National Laboratory, which had been leaking radioactive tritium, were closed.

The proposed Shoreham plant, which was to be the first of a possible 11 nuclear power plants the Long Island Lighting Company wanted to build in Suffolk, sits as a concrete hulk, its nuclear innards removed, and the BNL reactors have been abandoned.

But this doesn’t mean that Suffolk is immune from a nuclear plant accident. Just across the Long Island Sound in Connecticut are the two Millstone nuclear power plants, west of New London in Waterford. And the COVID-19 pandemic has cast further questions about them.

The daily newspaper in New London, The Day, has just run an article beginning: “Workers at Connecticut’s only nuclear power plant worry that managers are not taking enough precautions against the coronavirus after 750 temporary employees were brought in to help refuel one of the two active reactors. Ten employees of the Millstone Power Station in Waterford have tested positive for the virus, and the arrival of the temporary workers alarms some of the permanent employees.”

The piece says Jim Foley, vice president of the local chapter of the United Government Security Officers of America, said that “security personnel have had to fight for personal protective equipment and for partisans at access points to separate staff from security.” It quoted Mr. Foley declaring: “Speaking specifically for the guard force, there’s a lot of frustration, there’s a lot of concern, and I would say there’s anger.”

The Connecticut Coalition Against Millstone on its mothballmillstone.org website has a post titled: “Pandemic Strikes Millstone.” It cites the report in The Day of the Millstone employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 and says it has asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission “whether the corona-virus employees include control room operators. The NRC spokesman refused to answer the question.”

The organization declared: “Only a limited number of individuals are technically qualified as nuclear operators and their certifications are plant-specific. Should COVID-19 strike control room operators, the safety of the nuclear plant would be greatly jeopardized.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is, of course, having enormous impacts in the United States and around the world — but nuclear power plants are of special concern.

“Workers at nuclear power plants, just like everywhere else, are falling ill with the highly contagious COVID-19,” begins an OpEd just published in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna and Limerick power plants are among those that have so far identified infections among their staff, with incidences soaring at some plants. One might hope that, at a time of such crisis, the nuclear power industry and its regulators would take every possible step to ensure the health and safety of nuclear workers and their families, as well as the surrounding communities where they live.”

“Unfortunately, the opposite is happening,” says the piece by Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project at Beyond Nuclear, an organization based in Takoma Park, Md., and Linda Pentz Gunter, its international specialist.

“Instead,” they say, “the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is relaxing nuclear power plant safety inspections and maintenance while allowing essential staff, including security forces and fire brigades, to work longer and exhausting shifts.” The “extended permitted hours,” they relate, are “up to 86-hour work weeks for two weeks straight.”

They state: “The prospect of a serious nuclear power accident under the current pandemic conditions would set up an impossible choice for entire communities surrounding the affected reactors … whether to evacuate with potentially tens of thousands of others, or stay, instead risking radiation exposure.”

The Millstone nuclear power plants have highly problematic histories. Scores of whistle-blowers charging safety issues have emerged from the plants since Millstone 2 started up in 1975 and Millstone 3 in 1986. There have been mishaps. (Millstone 1 was closed in 1998 after equipment failures.)

Environmentalists and officials from Suffolk have been involved in challenging the Millstone plants, including opposing a 20-year extension of the 40-year licenses for Millstone 2 and 3 granted by the NRC in 2005. Suffolk County’s Fishers Island is within the 10-mile federal “emergency preparedness” zone of the plants. Shelter Island is 23 miles away. Likewise, in the early years of the fight against the Shoreham plant, environmentalists from Connecticut joined with those in Suffolk opposing Shoreham, 17 miles from Connecticut.