N.Y. nuclear proposal echoes past

Sunday February 6, 2011

EASTON, N.Y. -- An "all of the above" energy policy inclusive of nuclear power has been a signature position for U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, the Republican representative for the 20th Congressional District.

Inside the 20th, some have heeded his call. At their January town meeting, Easton Councilman Steven Mueller raised the topic of a resolution in support of nuclear power in the district, potentially for Easton -- where plans for such a plant were proposed, and ground broken, in the late 1960s. Local opposition and licensing inertia on the part of the then-U.S. Atomic Energy Commission ultimately derailed the plans.

"I'd just rather be part of the conversation, rather than outside looking in," Mueller said of Gibson's support for potential nuclear projects in the area. The discussion was tabled until the town's March meeting.

Original plans date from 1967

Mueller was not in the area in 1967, when Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation first revealed plans to build a 750,000-kilowatt nuclear facility in Easton along the banks of the Hudson River.

Town Supervisor John Rymph was, and said that he remembered being excited and looking forward to, as many residents did, the plant and the changes it would bring. A comprehensive plan and the town's planning board both sprouted in the aftermath of news of the nuclear facility planned for Grandma Moses' birthplace.

Preliminary site work for the Easton Atomic Electric Plant, as it was dubbed, began the summer of 1967, according to contemporary reports in the Greenwich Journal. The plant was to cost $125 million and was originally scheduled for completion in late 1971.

A 200-foot weather tower was the first visible sign to be erected in April of 1967. Niagara Mohawk that month also flew a group from Albany to Syracuse, including reporters from three Washington County newspapers, to an informational center at Nine Mile Point on the shores of Lake Ontario in Oswego, where construction of a similar nuclear plant was already underway.

Site work at the 900-acre plot on County Route 113 in Easton continued through the year 1967. The plant received the support of Easton town officials, the Washington County Board of Supervisors, county Republicans, and a local business association.

An editorial in the now defunct Cambridge-based Washington County Post proclaimed in March that "the atomic age had arrived on the local scene," but continued on to say that the "communities to be affected are far from being ready to meet the challenge."

The Easton atomic plant first ran into trouble after the Hudson River Valley Commission, a state agency created by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to ensure stewardship of a 300-mile stretch of that river valley, recommended in March of 1968 that work be discontinued until certain concerns were addressed.

Chief concerns of the plant included its effect on aquatic life in the river and rural life in Easton, and the visual impact of the plant as viewed from the Saratoga National Historical Park directly across the Hudson River, the site of Revolutionary War battles.

The Hudson River commission's qualms were shared by some locals, the state Historic Trust, and ultimately the National Advisory Commission for Historic Preservation. By mid-1968, the plant seemed in doubt, with an Aug. 8 Greenwich Journal headline proclaiming "Easton Likely to Lose Niagara Mohawk Plant."

Earle J. Machold, then-president of Niagara Mohawk, said during a May 1968 shareholders meeting that prolonged delay with the Easton plant would require the company to "pursue other plans."

The Greenwich Journal wrote then that despite the road blocks, the feeling locally for many up to that point was that the project would continue. The town of Easton, Washington County, and Stillwater Central School District were all poised for large tax revenues upon completion of the plant.

The Atomic Energy Commission never permitted for the construction of the plant. Niagara Mohawk in 1968 moved forward with plans for a 1-megawatt conventional oil-fired plant near Poughkeepsie.

Today, the town of Easton's Website boasts of more than 30 farms, making it the "most agricultural town in the region."

The Nine Mile Point Nuclear Generating Station began operating in 1969, and today is one of the two oldest nuclear reactors still in service in the United States. The plant received a license extension in 2006, and is now licensed until August 2029.

Problems then; problems now

Many of the same concerns voiced in 1968 are still applicable to nuclear power today, although proponents maintain that today's nuclear facilities are safer and cheaper than those built previously, known for legendary construction cost overages and delays.

Despite bipartisan support and streamlining of the permitting process, the last nuclear power plant to go online in the United States is the Watts Bar Nuclear Generating Station in Tennessee, which began construction in 1973 and commenced operation in 1996.

In Easton, the site of the proposed plant is now under agricultural easements and unavailable for development. Rymph does not see any alternative locations locally. "There's no landscape for it now," he said. "The place where it was proposed probably would have been the best location."

Zeke Wright can be contacted at ewright@benningtonbanner.com


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