by Paul Glover
Here in Tompkins County these warm homes and speedy cars, the voices on television, the tapwater splash and refrigerator hum come to us by burning Chinese dinosaur soup, Groton cow manure, prehistoric Pennsylvania plant fumes, Mexican rotting beans, Colorado rock dust, Georgia cotton, and Louisiana rice shucks. All our tools and everything in stores come from these strange earthy fuels and other fuels gathered and burned, and they come to us from falling rivers and rain, from volcanos, wind and flames of sun. Our lamps are plugged into California and Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Norway, Nigeria, Italy, Algeria and Kuwait too.
Tompkins County is connected to over 1,000 big sloppy power stations whose wide throats guzzle oil, coal, natural gas, uranium, wood or trash to bum the sky, and whose byproduct is electricity. These stations boil water which spins blades that whip excited electrons to our towns. They make Ithaca glow in the dark from miles in space. And with the help of gasoline and diesel vehicles and propane furnaces, they keep us alive by heating houses, by pumping water and transporting food. Without these machines modern Ithacans would rush to creeks to drink like deer, and freeze.
Today greater Ithaca faces its greatest civic decisions, and Ithacans our greatest personal decisions because, though the fires are hotter now than ever, they're about to cool. Despite low oil prices the American joyride is ending. Cheap oil has allowed us, like children lured to cars by candy, to enter a danger zone, of dependence on foreign oil. Even more ominously, as this article will explain, major world and national energy agencies agree that world oil resources will soon begin sharp decline, that natural gas trails right behind, that nuclear power is increasingly dangerous, that we have been digging dirtier coal, that U.S. reserves of mined fuels are draining faster than new sources are found.
This energy portrait of Tompkins County displays the power facts of our lives today, and describes choices and opportunities we face. All of us will live very differently, as Ithaca rebuilds to use reliable fuels, improving the ways we shelter, work, eat and move.
The first half of the story describes today's standard fuel and the second half introduces local sources.
This globe bristles with electricity, to 33,000 miles high, lashed by geomagnetic storms, lightning, northern lights. Our captured electricity is an electron chorus line kicking six billion billion electrons per second past every point on copper wire. Though science isn't agreed precisely what electric force is, electronics is a controllable miracle.
Ithaca first saw electricity put to work during Professor Anthony's public lecture of 1873. By 1875 he rigged the first outdoor electric lights in America, beside Sage Chapel, to America's first electric generator, in Morrill Hall. Soon Ithaca had telephones, and rode trollies electric-powered by Six Mile Creek's flow.
Local industries generated their own electricity with gasoline and coal, until NYSEG proved able to do so cheaper. The public hooked up eagerly, first for light, then to vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and radios, then to toasters, air conditioners, blankets, televisions and toothbrushes. These substitutes for gaslamp, icebox, quilt, broom and muscle presently cost Tompkins County nine million dollars per year. Ithacans of 1988 each use more than twice as much electricity as in 1960.
NYSEG has become our Wizard of Oz, the monopoly utility whose machinery grants our wishes, on its own terms. Their price for electricity is just above the national average, but rises almost twice as fast as most consumer prices.
Most of Tompkins County's electricity, 85-95 percent, is sent from NYSEG's
Milliken Station on Cayuga Lake. Milliken is the local hell on earth, a
1005º F bonfire turning Cayuga Lake into steam which twirls magnet-wrapped
axles to push 300 million watts of electricity along steel strands to
transmission and distribution substations, through transformers atop pine
poles, past voltage regulators and circuit breakers, relays, switches and
fuses, to enter neon signs, street lights and sockets countywide. Since
the plant opened 33 years ago, 23 million tons of western Pennsylvania and
West Virginia have been hauled across Ithaca in the form of coal. This
electricity is triple the amount need here, so the excess pours toward New
When Milliken is shut for repair we take juice from other NYSEG coal
plants, from the seven other New York state electric utilities, from 126
other electric utilities in the United States plus those of Canada.
Because NYSEG's 2,208 miles of power highway link us to 365,000 miles of
lines nationally, the lights of Pyramid Mall and Cass Park can be lit from
Tennessee rivers, from Utah uranium, Oklahoma natural gas, California wind
or New Jersey garbage.
New York State utilities swap power through the New York Power Pool switchboard near Albany. Although the network seldom fails, several trends are overloading it. Record high demand this summer (NYSEG 9 percent higher) required more imports than usual. Central New York's electric need is expected to leap 50 percent in the next 14 years (NYPP Outlook 1988, p.16) from the spread of homes, industries and businesses. At this rate NYSEG would run short of steam within five years. And their 14 wheezy coal furnaces, average 31 years old, need more frequent repair. The state itself foresees zero emergency capacity in about seven years and constant need for imported electricity seven years after that.
During the same time, New York state reliance on foreign oil, for heating,
gasoline and electricity, would surpass 80 percent (OPEC 55%). And
worldwide competition for fuel will become intense, as the Third World
industrializes an another billion humans are added to the present five
every decade. Meanwhile nuclear power will have started to slide as nukes
end their 30-50 year life spans. Coal will be severely controlled to slow
its damage to atmosphere and water. Our dollars will burn as fuel prices
None of the above are proper choices. There is good news found in new
directions, more solutions than problems, but the nation, state and county
have been drifting into dark holes. Next is a look at the largest: coal.
Time will crush most gorge rock around us into coal. Presently though, Tompkins County relies on western Pennsylvania for 94 percent and Kentucky for 5 percent of the 4,500,000 pounds of coal consumed here daily. NYSEG, New York state's Coal King, hauls bituminous by Conrail from 100-250 miles southwest; and Cornell trucks coal 500 miles from eastern Kentucky to Ohio River barges, to Pittsburgh onto trains and trucks again, up Mitchell Street to be plowed 20 feet high on orange frisbees (these expose the pile's base to the bulldozer). Other tons of hard anthracite, for Tompkins County's 111 coal-fed houses, are trucked from Panther Valley and other eastern Pennsylvania fields by Bowers of Trumansburg and Ames of Newfield.
Coal is a swamp thing, wherein soggy dead plants and animals are compressed to carbon during millions of years. Pressed deeper they melt into crude oil, then pass to natural gas. A pound of coal and pound of fat flesh have the same heat value.
Many consider the American coal supply endless. Pennsylvania's coal capital is Indiana County, with 123 stripmines, 23 deep mines and enough black stone to run Milliken Station for 1,900 years. But this is beyond reach since 500 U.S. coal stations need coal. Nationwide, the estimated 327-year supply (DOE 1982) caves in as coal use accelerates, soon to three times its present rate, and as more coal is hunted in deeper and narrower seams. The United Nations calculates the U.S. has only eighty years of cheap coal left. The youngest of us might see the embers of the coal age.
Coal's legacy already piles heavy on Tompkins County. Its continued use kills & corrupts long before it is gone. Near pure carbon, coal when burned connects with oxygen to become carbon dioxide which clogs the outer atmosphere to cause a global steambath-- the Greenhouse Effect- making our region hotter and drier, damaging our food supply and raising food prices.
Sulfur in Appalachian coal reaches clouds to fall on Greater Ithaca as the nation's worst acid rain, acid snow and acid slush (pH 4.2). Measured at Connecticut Hill and at Aurora, its summertime pH 3.5 is sour as vinegar. Most drifts here from Ohio, Illinois, Indiana; 25 percent is from New York state. We get less rain than the Adirondacks, so the effects have been diluted.
Yet despite reassurance by several experts that our highly lime soils protect local trees, some farmers see problems. Gordon Nesbitt, of the Regional Forest Practices Board says, "I think our forests suffer from acid rain. I can see where the pH of soils has declined much faster than it should have." Two south county tree farmers, where soil is less lime, discover doubling lime no longer helps. Chemists found rainwater there the "worst they had ever seen.
Technology could wash and fluidize or gasify coal, for cleaner burn, then scrub the vapor, but it's expensive. Midwest states would rather pollute our air at low cost than pollute their own water at high cost.
Smokestacks release arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, nickel, manganese, selenium and zinc. Even during drought we sweep acid dust. An estimated 134 asthmatic Americans die prematurely every day from coalborne pest. Eleven Pennsylvania miners die daily from black lung disease. Also deserving horrible mention are toxic ash hills (nine percent of original coal volume plowed 70 feet high near Milliken) and toxic runoff (Cornell's goes to the city sewer). Most U.S. and Pennsylvania coal mines are now stripmines, grand canyons of denuded land--1,200 square miles ruined yearly.
The story now turns even less pleasant, from acid to radioactive, before getting better.
While dissecting the universe scientists discovered that uranium, a metal invisibly boiling, can boil water to spark electricity. They believed the 'peaceful atom' would give cheap clean power. Recent years cause many to doubt this.
Tompkins County gets most of its nuclear power from the Fitzpatrick, Ginna, Nine Mile One and Two plants, located 70 miles north on Lake Ontario. 17 percent of the electricity available to us in the New York State grid is from 6 fission nukes, compared to 20 percent nationwide from 108 nukes. Wyoming and Colorado send uranium ore to Metropolis, Illinois for grinding into powder. From there it is trucked/train delivered to Savanna River, South Carolina to remove weaker isotopes, then sent to Pittsburgh for sealing inside black ceramic pills, then to Wilmington, North Carolina for loading into zirconium fuel rods and up Route 81, past Cortland to the lake nukes. Every step takes more caution because sizzling fissile materials cause humans to explode or decay. Mishandled, fission reactors can become atom bombs or wipe out cities without a sound.
The nuclear industry has presented itself as leading national independence from oil. However, we would need 3,100 new nukes to do the work of fossil fuels, says Cornell's Professor Duane Chapman. And the U.S. has only three active uranium mines--most is imported from Canada and South Africa. Even were domestic mining revived and only 100 more nukes built, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering agree U.S. supplies would be nearly gone within 30 years (Problems of U.S. Uranium Supply to the Year 2010).
Some say that, despite Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, radiation threats are better bets than acid rain and the Greenhouse Effect. But high risks cause the nations' reactors to be closed 40 percent of the year.
Even when operating normally they menace public health. Retiring from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last year, James Asselstine said he expects a major U.S. nuclear disaster within 20 years (NYT 6/7/87). One month later, Congress recognized this threat (to the nuclear industry) by protecting utilities from paying more than seven billion dollars to victims of a meltdown (NYT 7/30/87).
Nuclear power is being proven a daily disaster already. The National Cancer Institute has begun a study of cancer deaths among people neighboring nukes, after a British study found many children dying of leukemia near theirs. Early public health studies around several U.S. reactors show cancer rates up 180-400%, infant mortality up 50% and deformed births 230% above usual. Neighbors of Pilgrim One reactor started their own map of melanoma, brain cancer and breast cancer (NYT 5/21/87). A nurse at Syracuse' St. Joseph's Hospital recently said, "You wouldn't believe the number of leukemia cases we're getting from Nine Mile One's neighborhood."
Cayuga Lake was selected by NYSEG for a large nuclear plant in 1968, next to Milliken. Several Ithacans educated themselves about nuclear power, organized public meetings attended by up to 1,000 people and, as the Cayuga Lake Conservation Association, chased it away.
Cornell has the county's only nuclear reactor, a 500kw experimental unit across Cascadilla Creek from Collegetown, in Ward Laboratory. Three-quarters of a pound of serious radioactive waste waits removal.
One of the deadliest nuclear power stations in the world is located 25 miles from Ithaca at the Seneca Army Depot. About 1,300 nuclear weapons totalling 15,250 megatons (1,220,000 Hiroshimas) are stored there. Many Ithacans have stood vigil at the gate during this decade, just as busloads of locals helped block the Seabrook, New Hampshire nuclear station during the seventies.
Presently Tompkins County is downwind from 15 nuclear plants within 600 miles. This is still close enough for tragedy, for nukes have large back yards. Although the U.S. is 8,000 miles downwind of Chernobyl, the nation's death rate jumped 5.9 percent during the three months following that 1986 explosion, according to the American Medical News (2/26/88). U.S. infant mortality rose as well where increased iodine-131 crossed the land. The 18 percent pneumonia death rate increase during those months is also believed triggered by low-level Chernobyl radiation, which reached Ithaca 12 days after the explosion.
The nuclear industry, brushing the dust from its lab coat, claimed the Russian reactor was inferior to American nukes. But Chernobyl was double-walled, as strong or stronger than U.S. models (NYT 5/19/86). Here again, as at Three Mile Island and Windscale, human error lost control. Carl Goldstein, vice president of the pro-nuclear lobby USCEA, recently introduced the new PIUS "ultimate safe reactor," saying "no nuclear reactor or nuclear facility is perfectly safe" (Omni 5/88). But they must be. Absolutely infallibly.
U.S. Nuclear generating capacity will peak about 1992, then decline. These plants last about 30 years, then are taken apart and decontaminated. They will be gone, but can never be forgotten. Radioactive waste must be guarded for hundreds of thousands of years. New York state has 1,200 tons of spent fuel (cesium, strontium, plutonium) waiting at nukes. But no dump secure enough has yet been found. The first permanent site, east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, has sprung leaks that may make it worthless. Their latest choice is Yucca Mountain, Nevada, near an underground nuclear weapons test site. Shooting waste into space is proposed but could backfire. This administration approved a 30-year contract to fly plutonium over the North Pole to Japan, so they can build 120 nukes 6,500 miles upwind of us (NYT 1/13 & 4/18/88).
The hottest spot in our solar system is not the sun, but a machine 170 miles south of Ithaca in Princeton, New Jersey. The TOKAMAK experimental fusion reactor burns thin gas at 400,000,000 degreesF to melt hydrogen [since decommissioned]. Here in Ithaca itself, inside a giant box on Mitchell Street near East Hill Plaza, Cornell blasts tiny pellets with 5,000,000 volts, for a millionth of a second. Such experiments worldwide are trying to produce heat for steam by housebreaking the hydrogen bomb. So far all use more energy than they create. Physicists like Cornell's Hans Fleischmarm expect break-even soon. Commercial-size reactors would not be available until 2025 at the earliest. "Fusion will not help us for the next oil crisis," says Fleischmann.
Whether fusion would ever help us depends on more than technical feasibility. Their safety will have to be proved beyond the doubts stirred by grand safety claims made for fission. Because of the stress of huge heat, these large and expensive plants would have to be replaced as often as every ten years. One industry publication proudly announces that nuclear fusion generators could provide lots of inexpensive tritium for nuclear bombs.