The recent Guest Spot about the misadventure of the Long Island Lighting Company with nuclear power in Northville offers but a single chapter. The full history of that saga involved so many others that this writer has to state, at the outset, that I can offer but just another chapter, though one worthy of our reflection. Indeed, my goal here is to recount only one of a number of heroes to the East End who played a vital role in stopping the nuclear plant — the late Riverhead Councilman Antone Regula.
First, a quick background. LILCO’s ambition to rise to the lucrative status of a national broker of nuclear power fell apart due in great measure to a popular uprising among the regular folks of the Town of Riverhead, wherein the Northville — which the state and LILCO referred to as Jamesport — plant was to be built. This uprising came to fruition thanks to Tony Regula, who led the charge in his quiet, mild-mannered way at a critical time by thinking out of the box in the face of intense pressure to back off.
With his tenacity, the whole idea of a Jamesport nuclear plant actually made its way to the voting booth, in the form of a ballot proposition in the 1979 town elections. The ballot question he and I drafted was simply worded, and was as well both proper and lawful. Riverhead Town’s voters resoundingly rejected the plant. In fact, federal agencies were in charge of nuclear plants, so this vote was not technically binding on the feds. But this vote by the people sent a crucial signal far and wide.
You see, up until that ballot vote, the Town Board of Riverhead, in the hope of tax revenues the plant would bring, strongly backed LILCO’s nuke plant plan. Long before November 1979, board members made clear to all who would listen that which they sincerely believed: The nuke plant idea enjoyed strong local support. This, in turn, convinced the county Legislature, and the local representatives in Albany and Washington, that a Jamesport nuclear power plant made political sense, simply because it was a popular idea. LILCO itself presumed local popularity for a Jamesport plant in its lobbying efforts in Albany and D.C., and its lobbyists carried this presumption to willing listeners in then County Executive John Klein and Governor Hugh Carey.
That is why Tony Regula met angry reaction, even political threats, when he openly pushed to have the plant project up for a vote. Some of his Town Board colleagues felt he was putting them on the spot. Their private and public discussions on a vote grew harsh. Yet he persisted. Finally the Town Board relented and approved Tony’s ballot proposition for the following November. The referendum and the controversy surrounding it gained much unexpected pre-vote publicity. This resulted in significantly higher voter turnout on Election Day. When the votes were counted, the Jamesport nuclear project, without the first shovel in the ground, was dealt a resounding defeat. Democracy triumphed with the profound impact of this rejection, even contributing in great measure to the first election of a relatively unknown candidate for the office of Riverhead supervisor, Joe Janoski. Not unlike others, previous guest columnists included, the late supervisor preferred not to mention this referendum, or its real effect. But the repercussions of this vote, thanks to Mr. Regula, reached the heart of the issue.
The false weapon of community backing, shamelessly exploited by LILCO and its Wall Street and nuclear industry buddies, and the lobbyists, banks, insurance companies and the powerful construction trade unions, was dramatically snatched right out of their hands. The truth set Riverhead Town free. The people’s will carried to the Suffolk County Legislature, which reversed its support of LILCO’s Jamesport ambitions for the first time, within only weeks after and largely because of that referendum. Then the public hearings against nuclear power on Long Island showed new spirit as they raised the referendum’s dramatic outcome time and again. No one argues that this vote was the Jamesport plant’s downfall, yet in retrospect, it not only blunted the speed and self-assurance of the greedy special interests, but it also gave added focus to a grass-roots offensive that gained momentum.
We remember Tony Regula as a real gentleman, a truly good, ordinary, big-hearted guy who did what he knew had to be done and stuck with it, not unlike the people of Riverhead Town whom he represented. More important than his legacy of helping to spare us the Jamesport nuclear plant, and likely the others which were sure to dot the eastern Long Island landscape, was his inspiration for all of us, especially young people who seek role models for public service: that when you hold on to what you know is right and work hard, even struggle, to make the world a better place, you’re more than just an idealist, you’re someone who can make a real and lasting difference.
Greg Blass, who resides with his family in Jamesport, is a former U.S. Naval officer who has practiced law in Riverhead and represented the East End in the county Legislature, where he was also presiding officer, and where he chaired public hearings on health, safety and evacuation issues in connection with the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant. He also served 10 years as a family court judge and is now commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services.