50 Years Of Opposition Brings Ravenswood Nuclear Power Plant Ban
Astoria is a thriving neighborhood. Accessible to Manhattan, it has the feel of both an urban and small town environment with safe streets and a long and varied list of dining and cultural destinations. But few people today know it almost became home to a nuclear power plant.
Although local power plants, which provide more than half of all the electricity generated in New York City, make Astoria one of the worst neighborhoods for air pollution and asthma rates, it could have been worse, much worse. There could have been a nuclear power plant right in the neighborhood.
Fifty years ago, around the same time that the Japanese decided to allow Tokyo Electric to build a nuclear plant in Fukushima and Consolidated Edison (Con Ed) was about to go online at Indian Point in Northern Westchester, Con Ed also applied to the Atomic Energy Commission to build a 1,000-megawatt nuclear generating station on the East River in Astoria at the Ravenswood generating station. The proposal, for a site where more than five million people lived or worked within five miles of it, was made by Con Ed on Dec. 10, 1962, would have been the world’s largest nuclear plant, with a capacity greater than all existing nuclear power plants in the U.S. at the time.
Local opposition quickly coalesced against the proposal and succeeded in stopping the threat of a nuclear power plant in the Ravenswood area’s back yard. Successors to that fight have been battling for cleaner air and a safer environment, with mixed results, ever since. The nuclear plant battle is one time they won.
“And the world watched after a year-long struggle, now all but forgotten, over Con Ed’s proposed Ravenswood nuclear plant played out,” according to an Apr. 14, 2011 New York Times report, “A Huge Plant in the Heart of the City? It’s Unthinkable Now, but Years Ago…”.
In February 1963 the community came together in an auditorium, possibly the Ravenswood Community Center, near the plant site, for the first meeting on the nuclear power station with then Queens Borough President Mario J. Cariello. A Democrat, Cariello was a municipal judge and former state Assemblymember when he was named borough president on Jan. 3, 1963 to replace John T. Clancy, who resigned to become a Queens County Surrogate judge.
One month into his tenure, Cariello “set the tone” at the community meeting, saying, “I was opposed to this project, I am opposed, and I will continue in that stand until convinced otherwise,” according to the Times.
In April 1963, Con Ed Chairman Harland C. Forbes told a Congressional committee any concerns were “rather silly” and that “one or two people have raised some question about the genetic effects of radiation and so forth”, according to the Times.
In testimony to the same Congressional committee, David E. Lillenthal, a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, said, “I would not dream of living in the borough of Queens if there were a large atomic power plant in that region because there is an alternative—a conventional thermal power plant to which there are no risks.”
In May 1963, New York City Council Democratic Leader Carmine DeSapio introduced a bill banning commercial nuclear power in New York City. Council hearings on that bill began on June 14.
“Outside [City Hall] a crowd of over 100 protesters marched with signs saying, “No A-plant in New York” and “Don’t Make an Ash Out of Us”, according to the Greater Astoria Historical Society. The protesters called themselves “CANPOP” for the Committee Against a Nuclear Power Plant (in New York City.)
Before the City Council, Seymour R. Thaler, then a member of the Queens delegation in the New York state senate, testified, “The mind of man has not yet invented an accident-proof piece of mechanical equipment.” (NY Times)
By August 1963, the Atomic Energy Commission enumerated a list of safety issues concerning the nuclear plant proposal to Con Ed, given their own guidelines for a nuclear site were based on a one-mile unpopulated zone around any nuclear plant and a low population density within a 16- mile radius of it. Con Ed responded with a claim that the shield for the nuclear plant’s pressurized water reactor could “withstand a meltdown or a jetliner crash.” (NY Times).
Irving Katz, a founder of CANPOP, told the New York Times in October 1963, “When we look out of our windows and see those two [smoke] stacks up there, we are frightened.” On December 9, Con Ed proposed “additional engineering safeguards” to the Atomic Energy Commission.
But on Jan. 6, 1964, Con Ed withdrew its application for the nuclear power plant at
Ravenswood, contending other arrangements were in the works and that the withdrawal “had absolutely nothing to do with the public opposition to the proposal.” (NY Times)
Subsequently, Con Ed proposed another plan in 1968 to build a nuclear reactor not more than several hundred feet from the Ravenswood plants below an abandoned hospital site on what is now Roosevelt Island (then Welfare Island) and made a third proposal in 1970 for nuclear plants built on man-made islands located several miles off Coney Island in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Neither plan went far. (NY Times)
Con Ed began operation of the conventional Ravenswood Unit 3 with 1,000 megawatts of power emitted from a generator forever known as “Big Allis” in 1965. The Ravenswood Generating Station, as a whole, today consists of three steam generators (built in 1963 and 1965) at a total capacity of 2,410 megawatts using combined natural gas and oil power.
Ravenswood’s current owner, NRG, has proposed a new $1.5 billion natural gas power plant to replace the older and dirtier operation, but is first seeking to find a buyer for the power it will generate. NRG bought the plant from Con Ed in 2001.
The Indian Point Nuclear Energy Center, located 38 miles north of New York City at Buchanan, New York, along the Hudson River, has an expiring license after 40 years for Units 2 and 3 in 2013 and 2015, respectively (Unit 1 was permanently closed in 1974). Hearings before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (which replaced the Atomic Energy Commission) start at the end of 2012. Con Ed sold Indian Point 1 and 2 in November 2001 to Entergy Corporation, basically leaving the market as an energy producer to concentrate on energy distribution. Entergy purchased Indian Point 3 from the New York Power Authority in 2000.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for closing Indian Point and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, together with Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, recently wrote, “New Yorkers face a stark choice: are we going to be stuck for another 20 years with an aging nuclear plant sitting precariously on two active earthquake faults which fails to meet minimum federal fire safety regulations by a country mile and lacks any credible emergency evacuation plan, or will we move to a safe sustainable, job-creating energy future like the vision outlined by Governor Andrew Cuomo last month?” (Blog HuffPost NY June 13, 2012).
“Ravenswood was kind of a test case,” J. Samuel Walker, a historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in the New York Times Apr. 14, 2011 report. After Ravenswood, he said, the commission “agreed on kind of an informal rule: They wouldn’t allow a [nuclear] plant any closer to the city than Indian Point.”