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Sounding a warning: John Shannon. Photo by John Whipple.

Soft Targets?

A well-known critic questions the safety of the Capital Region’s nuclear facilities

With last Friday’s warning by the FBI of a so-called “spectacular terrorist attack” intended to damage the U.S. economy and inflict large-scale casualties on U.S. citizens, heightened security measures were immediately put in place at locations across the nation. But some argue that a possible target is being overlooked; one that, if attacked, could have devastating effects on those living in the Capital Region.

According to John Shannon, a former nuclear physicist, two nuclear reactors in this area—Kesselring Naval Training Site in Milton, and Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna—are ill-prepared in the event of an attack. He contends that unless containment vessels are built around the facilities, particularly at Kesselring, the public is at great risk for hazardous exposure should a terrorist fly a plane into or plant a bomb at either facility.

“It is a disaster waiting to happen that would be worse then Chernobyl,” said Shannon, who was manger of safety at both sites for 31 years, and has been a frequent critic of the sites’ safety policies in the years since his departure. “They don’t have containment vessels nor emergency core cooling systems, and nobody is doing anything to protect us because it would cost too much money.”

He explained that the reactors used at the Kesselring site are pressurized water reactors, and if punctured, the water would go out into the atmosphere. Along with the water, highly radioactive material like uranium could be released that could kill everyone at the site and possibly those living within a 10-mile radius of the facility. However, he added, having a containment vessel could prevent such hazardous waste from spreading.

“They need to build containment vessels so if an incident were to occur it could be contained,” said Shannon. “They don’t have that, and they won’t build it, because it would require them to close down the facility for two or three years, and that would cost them too much money.”

Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory operates the two reactors, which are owned by Lockheed Martin. According to James Burns, spokesman for KAPL, the facilities conduct research and development work on navel nuclear propulsion plants. They provide technical support for operating nuclear-powered ships and operates two prototype propulsion plants for testing equipment and for the training of naval personnel for the Navy’s nuclear fleet.

Burns disagreed with Shannon’s claims. He said that there is minimal risk to the public from either of the KAPL sites, and that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, security measures have been heightened. He said that the impact of a terrorist attack at either site would likely be localized on-site and not severe.

“We continue to evaluate information about the terrorist threat to our country as part of ensuring security and safety at our sites,” said Burns. “But we will not discuss the specific nature of the security measures.”

Burns pointed out that there are no reactors at the Knolls site. But the Kesselring site has two reactors that are built to high-shock standards.

“Contrary to what you have been told,” said Burns, “Both reactors have safety and containment systems. In fact, both reactors meet or exceed all requirements for ensuring protection of the public and the environment.”

But Shannon said that this is the same old rhetoric that KAPL has been feeding the public for years.

“They know that this is a real threat,” said Shannon, who left the facility in 1990. “Do you think they would admit any threat to public health and safety? I have been involved in many discussions with technical people at these facilities where it was said that we should have containment vessels.”

Daniel Fiorillo, director of emergency management for Schenectady County, said that he can’t comment on what safety mechanisms are in place at either of the KAPL sites. However, he did say that the county has plans in place to handle a chemical spill or an explosion. In the event of a terrorist attack, these same procedures would apply.

“If someone drops a nuclear bomb in our backyard, a major one that comes in on a missile,” said Fiorillo, “then we have to face that in a different context, but in dealing with the local companies, we feel we have sufficient plans in place.”

But Shannon said that until safety containment vessels are built at the nuclear sites themselves, the public is still at real risk.

“The people who started this business at Kesselring and even those who started the nuclear power business were real geniuses,” said Shannon. “You had Einsteins that went and taught at Princeton and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. But now you have guys that barely know anything about nuclear power. It has become a business, and it is now run by incompetent people. They may know how to run a business, but that is not the same thing.”

Burns insisted that one of KAPL’s top priorities is safety.

“Most of us live with our families in Saratoga and Schenectady counties,” said Burns. “All of us take very seriously our responsibility for reactor safety and protection of the community.”

—Nancy Guerin

Here We Go Again

Another big-box retail project threatens historic buildings in Rensselaer County

Appetite for Destruction: An uncertain future for the Freihofer’s bakery building in Lansingburgh. Photo by Joe Putrock.

A controversy many Troy residents believed dead was stirred to life again last week as Eckerd Drugs submitted a new proposal to demolish the 89-year-old Freihofer’s bakery and 107-year-old Riverside Club in Lansingburgh to make way for a new and expanded drugstore.

The renewed tension in the air was mixed with the dust of the 164-year-old Defreest-Church House in East Greenbush, which was razed last week to make way for parking at a new Target store. Historic-preservation activists, still outraged over this defeat, rallied about two dozen speakers to a Troy Planning Commission meeting last Thursday to oppose what is, in their view, the unnecessary destruction of two other community landmarks.

“We felt that we needed to stop this demolition derby,” said Eric Daillie, cofounder of the Troy-based Historic Action Network. “It’s very important to save these structures to keep a certain flair to visitors . . . as opposed to another ‘big-box’ pharmacy—they’re all the same—and a huge parking lot.”

Eckerd’s proposal to take down the old buildings near the foot of the Troy-Waterford Bridge and build a so-called “big box”—a large-scale retail store—was tabled by the Planning Commission, which recommended that Eckerd submit an environmental impact study. Activists viewed the commission’s seemingly mundane suggestion to delay the project as a step in the right direction.

“I think the recommendation of the Planning Department is an indication that attitudes are changing,” said Daillie.

Historic Action Network was formed three years ago. According to cofounder Russell Ziemba, it has an active membership of Capital Region residents numbering in the low hundreds. Its members have urged Eckerd to reuse the buildings to maintain the neighborhood’s character.

When Eckerd offered its first application to build on the site in March 2000, Historic Action sued the company and the project’s developers, Catskill Associates and Schuyler Companies, based on the claim that Eckerd’s projections on the impact a big-box store could have on traffic and the neighborhood’s character were flawed. The state Supreme Court initially dismissed the case on Eckerd’s argument that Ziemba and Daillie did not live close enough to the buildings to have any standing in the case, but the state’s appellate division overturned the lower court’s decision when other members of Historic Action joined the lawsuit.

After years of stagnating in court, most activists thought Eckerd had given up.

“Twice during the last nearly three years we felt that Eckerd had dropped their proposal for various reasons—the state of the economy, they’d overexpanded, the continual lawsuit,” Ziemba said.

But last week’s proposal—which is not much different from the first plan except that it looks to downsize the proposed store from 13,000 to roughly 11,000 square feet—proved Historic Action wrong.

Eckerd spokewoman Tami Alderman said the company only wants the property to relocate and expand a store in the same neighborhood so it can offer its customers new conveniences. Alderman also said that the company offered to pay to move the buildings rather than demolish them.

“Regardless, that offer was declined,” Alderman said. “We are making every effort to work with the community, and the store we have proposed for that site is brick with arches and it fits into the surrounding neighborhood.”

In any case, Eckerd is not willing to use the buildings.

“The site and the buildings are not designated as historical, and the area is commercial,” Alderman said. “Unfortunately, in most cases, [reusing an older building] does not work for us. There are wiring and plumbing concerns.”

Ziemba and Daillie pointed out that other businesses in the Troy area have managed to renovate and use old buildings, including two CVS drugstores, one of which is in an old bottling plant on 5th Avenue in Lansingburgh. Although the bakery and Riverside Club are not officially designated as historic, activists see their destruction as part of a larger problem with overdevelopment. They noted the existing Eckerd competes with a CVS, a nearby Rite Aid, and supermarkets, and pointed out other local buildings lost in recent years to big chain stores: for example, the old water commissioner’s mansion, which stood only a few hundred yards away from the buildings now under the threat of demolition.

“Their interest is not necessarily the viability of the neighborhood or providing a service to the people in that neighborhood, it’s becoming the predominant drugstore chain,” Ziemba said. “I agree that we need economic development and tax revenue, but we do that by rehabilitating these important buildings.”

Economic development was one concern Troy Mayor Mark Pattison listed among the city’s necessary considerations, but would say only that the city will look at the new proposal based on its merits.

“I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to have an opinion,” said Pattison. “They have every right to bring a new proposal to the city, and we have to respond. . . . It’s America, and the government can’t just capriciously and arbitrarily condemn a project just because we don’t like the style.”

Ziemba said politicians without opinions, including Rensselaer County Executive Kathy Jimino, are part of the problem.

“The politicians were all passing the buck, saying they were sympathetic but couldn’t do anything,” he said of the Defreest-Church demolition.

After years of bickering, some residents wonder why Eckerd is so persistent.

“It’s the best place in town,” Daillie said. “It’s more a real estate investment, I think. . . . and they’re willing to pay an army of lawyers to pursue that.”

—David Riley

Teri Currie

Has Anyone Seen This Birdhouse?

Have you noticed that something is missing from Washington Park? Take a stroll to the corner of Hudson Avenue and Willett Street and look to the pie-shaped piece of land, and you may notice that the city’s favorite birdhouse is no longer there. But not to worry: Willard Bruce, commissioner of general services for the city of Albany, said that the bird condo has been taken down temporarily, for repairs.

Bruce explained that this summer maintenance workers noticed pieces of the birdhouse on the ground, so the city decided take it down for the winter. “It was falling apart, so our carpenters are doing a bit of rehabilitation to it,” said Bruce.

The city plans on putting the birdhouse back up in time for the 2003 Tulip Fest.

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