By Kennedy Maize
Washington, D.C., 19 November 2012 – One of the more interesting back stories of the saga of Tropical Storm Sandy and its devastation of Long Island’s electric power system is a tale of Cuomo father and son. Father is former New York Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo and the son is current New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. What entangles them in Sandy is the convoluted history of the Long Island Power Authority and the twisted legacy of the ill-fated Shoreham nuclear power plant.
Current governor Cuomo, highly critical of the performance of Long Island’s electric utility in restoring service following the storm, has called for an investigation and set up a special panel to conduct it. He is, in a real sense, investigating the history of his father’s successful move to scuttle the $6 billion, failed nuclear construction project over 20 years earlier. The first governor Cuomo in 1989 worked out a dealto abandon the completed 820-MW GE boiling water reactor, then some 25 years in the making, by killing the venerable investor-owned utility that started the project – the Long Island Lighting Company – and creating a new public power agency – the Long Island Power Authority – to assume the crushing debt of the nuclear plant and become a retail distributor of power.
Cuomo pere had every justification in 1989 for his actions in ending the Shoreham saga. During the two decades of its ill-fated gestation, the cost of the project increased by a factor of 100. The construction project on the far eastern end of Long Island became a wholly-owned make-work project for a thoroughly corrupt labor movement, the board of the utility became targets of a federal racketeering inquiry, and the U.S. nuclear industry foolishly adopted the project as a battleground over the future of nuclear power. A famous episode of the TV news magazine “60 Minutes” had footage of a crane lifting equipment and supplies from the construction project and depositing the booty on trucks that hauled it away to be black marketed.
The star-crossed Shoreham project even besmirched the image of fairness of the federal government. The Reagan administration’s U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in thrall to the nuke political juggernaut, made a costly ruling allowing the utility to start up and irradiate a plant that no sane observer believed would ever go into commercial operation. That act of supreme and supine cowardice cost consumers at least another $250 million. The Reagan and Bush (I) administrations huffed and puffed that they would do everything in their power to keep the plant from being dismantled. They failed, of course.
Midwifing the birth of a new, massive public power agency on the corpse of an arrogant and ignorant investor-owned utility corporation, Cuomo installed at the helm of the new utility a political crony, the head of the state’s consumer protection agency, Richard Kessel. The short, pugnacious Kessel, possessed of a gigantic ego (given the rock-and-roll moniker of “Little Richard” by the press who covered him) had no evident executive skills and was unable to demonstrate that he acquired any during his tenure. Nor have his successors. The latest, acting chief Mike Hervey, announced last week he will step down, a move he said was not connected to LIPA’s post-Sandy, prompting widespread disbelief.
Among many problems that have faced LIPA over the years – including a leadership more attuned to politics than utility management – perhaps the most difficult has been a lack of cash to put into upgraded facilities, including what the power agency admits is a woefully under powered computer system. Given the heavy debt load from the Lilco takeover (the state bought the nuclear plant for $1 and assumed all of the more than $5 billion in debt), there just isn’t much money left to put into a better system.
So now LIPA has become a punching bag, and rightfully so. Says Cuomo fils, “LIPA did not work for many, many years. It was fatally flawed. It was without function. I believe LIPA has been beyond repair for a long time. I don’t believe you can fix it, I believe it has to be overhauled and you need a new system.”