Lawyer Tom Twomey knows far more than most of us about the importance of citizen participation in making energy policy. That’s because Twomey has spent four decades keeping a watchful eye on electric power suppliers in New York — and he’s learned that what we don’t know can hurt us.
Certainly, what he’s learned about the hubris and underhand dealings of the U.S. nuclear power industry offers some valuable lessons for Japan. But the most important thing he says he’s come to realize is that the participation of public-interest lawyers and the media is critical to ensure that energy providers prioritize safety. And that applies just as much to Japan as the United States, he insists, even though Japan is a far less litigious society in which citizens shy away from challenging government and big business.
In the following recent interview with The Japan Times, Twomey shares some insights and experiences from his years helping farmers to challenge the U.S. nuclear power industry — and win.
What was the situation you faced in 1974?
In the 1970s, the local utility on Long Island decided that, rather than simply supplying electricity to homeowners and businesses in the area, they would get into the wholesale production of electricity and produce enough power for the entire northeast region of the United States.
Unlike the other coastal areas from Boston to Washington D.C., which are heavily populated, the east end of Long Island is a rural farming area with a relatively small population. It also has easy access to the cooling waters of the Atlantic, since a nuclear plant requires massive amounts of water to keep its reactors from overheating.
The local utility decided to build 19 nuclear reactors there in Jamesport, and it planned to turn our rural area into “A Nuclear Power Park.”
As a lawyer, how did you get involved?
I was retained by farmers in the area to find out what the utility was planning. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were beginning the only successful trial of the nuclear industry in America. Prior to these proceedings, virtually all applications in America were given rubberstamp approvals. Thanks to New York State regulations, we were able to intervene in the legal proceedings and — once we were a party to the proceedings — we were able to force the industry to answer questions under oath about the need for and the safety of nuclear power.
In short, what happened?
When the farmers began their battle, local elected officials were initially bemused. But as the legal fight intensified, these officials took more and more interest in the issue. With thorough reporting in three newspapers, the public began to realize that if even a small accident occurred at the reactor, they might have to evacuate their homes permanently. They might forever lose their businesses. They might suffer untold numbers of cancers.
All of a sudden, the truthfulness of the utility executives become a critical issue. And those utility experts had to repeatedly admit under oath that they were exaggerating the safety of the reactor.
After 80 full days of trial over the course of several years, we finally succeeded in securing a denial of the application, but only after extraordinary efforts by dozens of scientific and engineering witnesses whom my clients retained to testify against the proposal, and only after direct intervention by our governor who, at the request of all the local elected officials, stood up to the powerful nuclear industry.
What did the utility experts reveal in court?
With straight faces, the utility scientists testified that there would never be an accident that would exceed the radiation limits in the regulations. On cross-examination, they were forced to admit that during an accident, maximum radiation safety limits are suspended. In other words, during an accident, an unlimited amount of radiation could spew from a plant but the utility could accurately assure the public the emissions did not exceed safety limits.
The utility scientists also testified that no released radiation would be immediately harmful to the residents living in the vicinity of a nuclear plant. On cross-examination, they were forced to admit that few people die immediately from cancer and leukemia; it takes a period of time for these “health effects,” as they euphemistically called them, to occur. In other words, the utility could accurately say, as they are doing now in Japan, that there would be no immediate danger to the residents of the area.
The utility scientists further testified that the Jamesport plants would not kill any fish — even though 10 percent of the waters of Long Island Sound would be sucked through an 8-foot (240-cm) diameter pipe each year to cool the nuclear core.
On cross-examination, they were forced to admit that the water would be heated to 32 degrees, thereby killing billions of fish eggs each year, decimating the number of fish that would spawn in the Sound from then on. They defended their statement that no fish would be killed by sheepishly admitting that there would end up being no fish to be killed.
With these shocking revelations, it became clear that the nuclear industry was built upon an elaborate deception of the public and of public officials who were making energy decisions. The nuclear industry simply could not be trusted.
What were the most convincing arguments you made against the plants?
We concentrated on three arguments: Compared to existing alternatives, the reactors were not needed, they were unsafe, and they were too expensive.
First, we had plenty of natural gas available to boil water to turn the turbines to make the electricity. Second, the pumps and piping supplying water to cool the reactor were so huge that metal fatigue would eventually occur and cause a release of radioactivity into an area that could not be safely evacuated since we are on an island. Third, the industry admitted that massive taxpayer subsidies would be needed to operate the plants.
You are also familiar with the decommissioning of another reactor, at Shoreham, New York. How did the decommissioning come about?
Through civil disobedience and political action, residents convinced the governor of New York to initiate a takeover of the utility company, which had brazenly ignored the wishes of elected officials in the region by starting up the reactor. In the end, the utility was put out of business. A state agency took over the reactor, shut it down, and began tearing it down and decommissioning the radioactive parts.
You also worked as a trustee to the Long Island Power Authority during the decommissioning. What did you learn from that experience?
I was appointed to that $1-a-year job by Gov. Mario Cuomo (father of the current governor) to represent the residents of the area. I volunteered over six years to help oversee the dismantling of the Shoreham reactor and install gas turbines at the site. I learned that after 40 years of talk and study by the nuclear industry about how to safely dispose of nuclear waste from these reactors, there is no way of doing it. That is why the nuclear rods are still stored on the roof of reactor buildings.
From what I learned, I believe there never will be a safe way of storing this waste. Just as there will never be a way to prevent a tsunami.
Do you have any thoughts on what citizens in Japan should be doing?
Citizens in the areas around nuclear plants should form a coalition. They should engage law firms to participate in all administrative proceedings that are scheduled to license or extend the life spans of nuclear plants in the country. The lawyers should cross-examine all utility experts under oath. Highly qualified experts should be engaged to testify on behalf of the residents. Local residents and elected officials should be informed every step of the way through the media. Email addresses should be collected. Databases should be created to quickly disseminate information collected at the hearings.
Eventually, with a lot of hard work, the citizens will prevail.
Stephen Hesse teaches in the Chuo University Law Faculty and is Director of the Chuo International Center. He can be reached at email@example.com