Meltdown Over BNL Evacuation


Suffolk County environmentalists and legislators have filed a lawsuit demanding the state do something they admit may be impossible: Prepare an emergency evacuation plan to be used in the event of nuclear meltdown at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

“We’re asking the state to live up to its obligation,” said Legis.George Guldi (D-Hampton Bays). “Some of us don’t think that they’ll be able to deal with this natty little problem.”

The suit, filed July 31 in State Supreme Court in Riverhead, seeks to force the state’s Disaster Preparedness Commission to make plans for getting people off Long Island should an atomic experiment at Brookhaven result in widespread radioactive pollution. The nonprofit Standing for Truth About Radiation (STAR) brought the suit, together with three homeowners who live near the Upton lab. The Suffolk Legislature has since signed on with STAR as an intervenor and is hiring its own attorneys.

The legal action is just one part of lab opponents’ strategy to stop Brookhaven’s High Flux Beam Reactor from cranking up again. The experimental reactor, which has been idle since radioactive tritium was discovered leaking from the site in late 1996, may get a fresh green light from the U.S. Department of Energy before year’s end. That has activists scrambling to put roadblocks in place.

For starters, they asked the legislature to fund a $75,000 study of the 33-year-old reactor by an independent consultant, rather than relying on an environmental assessment by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. County Executive Robert Gaffney nuked a draft of that resolution— which was co-sponsored by Guldi and Legislators Michael Caracciolo (R-Riverhead) and Fred Towle (R-Shirley)— in favor of applying for a federal grant.

Guldi said it was hard to argue with the county exec’s position that the feds should pay for a look at their own reactor, but STAR attorney Scott Cullen took a less charitable view. “Robert Gaffney is no friend of the environment, that’s for sure,” Cullen said.

A spokesman for Gaffney said he’d try to get an answer about the chief’s action, but by press time had not delivered. A spokesman for the Disaster Preparedness Commission, which oversees the State Emergency Management Office, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Oddly, the fact that Suffolk has no plan for dealing with a doomsday at Brookhaven stems from anti-nuke forces’ successful fight to shutter the Shoreham nuclear power plant. In 1983, activists convinced the county legislature to throw out Suffolk’s scheme for dealing with radiation disasters, in order to send a message that Long Island couldn’t be evacuated if Shoreham melted down. STAR and its allies contend the state then had a responsibility to create a blueprint for nuclear emergencies— a responsibility that has gone unmet.

Brookhaven director John Marburger said the lab doesn’t need to devise an evacuation plan for Long Island because the reactor is far too small to contaminate nearby neighborhoods.

Even if Marburger is correct that the lab poses little threat, he’ll be hard-pressed to convince Long Islanders to stay put if a High Flux Beam Reactor experiment goes haywire. Guldi said Suffolk residents will try to flee if even a small cloud of radiation is released. “Our position is that the people are going to evacuate anyway,” he said. “That means 225,000 people will have to go past the lab to get out. It isn’t going to work…Short of an absolute assurance of safety, we want them to go do it somewhere else— period.”

A Note on the Apocalypse Folks who’ve been waiting for Brookhaven to obliterate the planet with its Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider can stop holding their breath— for now. Physicists managed to get gold ion beams circulating through both RHIC tunnels last weekend, but decided to take a break until fall before attempting to smash the subatomic particles together. The public can tour the experiment, which some speculate could create a black hole that would swallow the Earth, on Sunday, Aug. 22 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free. Bomb shelters cost extra.