Hey, Buddy, Want to Buy A Steam Turbine?

New York preps for the nation's first auction of a nuclear power plant

The control room at the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant sounds like Jane Fonda's worst nightmare.

Fire bells are ringing; a higher pitched alarm is shrieking at the same time; lights on the control panel are flashing warnings that systems are failing; and no one is around to stop the mayhem.

No, this is not a drill. This is also not a meltdown. The "China Syndrome" alarms were tripped by workers using acetylene torches to remove pieces of the plant which no longer has any neutrons bouncing about in chain reactions.

The workers are busy ripping out equipment or metal pieces that someone might want to buy because nearly everything in the plant - including the control room - is for sale, ready to be auctioned off today through Thursday.

The auction will be the epilogue for one of the nation's most expensive monuments to the nuclear power debate. In 1988, after a long battle with antinuclear Gov. Mario Cuomo, the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) sold the $5.5 billion facility to the state for $1. Shoreham's nuclear heart only produced electricity for 32 hours.

Although Shoreham never generated much juice, its political half-life rivals plutonium. During last year's gubernatorial election, Mr. Cuomo, aware of his low popularity on Long Island, where the electric rates are among the highest in the nation, suggested that the state buy LILCO. The LILCO rates are so high because the utility was allowed to recapture the cost of building Shoreham in its rate base. The battle over electric power on the island continues today with the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), a state agency, offering to buy LILCO against Gov. George Pataki's wishes.

LIPA is also the entity hawking the plant's nonnuclear parts. The auctioneer, National Industrial Services Inc., says this is the first time that a nuclear power plant that has produced electricity from uranium has been auctioned. The auction itself is likely to be on the low-key side - the caterer is a Sabrett hot-dog truck.

Inside the plant, tags identify thousands of valves, plasma metal-cutting machines, and 120-ton hoists ready for the auctioneers gavel.

No one has invited Saddam Hussein. But just about anyone else in need of giant heat exchangers, shock absorbers large enough to hold huge turbines, or 250,000 pounds of titanium rods is welcome to raise a pinky, or perhaps twitch. (On second thought, a stray twitch at this auction could land you with an unexpected 10-ton Shoreham lawn ornament.)

Before any nuclear-wannabes get too excited about the prospect of buying some partially used fuel rods, it should be stated that the nuclear part of the plant has been decommissioned and shipped off to a hole in the ground in Pennsylvania.

On a tour of the former power plant, James Dygert, a crew-cut salesman for the auctioneer, says he expects most of the buyers to be dealers or brokers in used equipment. Some of the material is likely to have value only as scrap. For example, in the main containment building, where the nuclear material used to be, there is a crane that can lift 120 tons. Unfortunately, it is built to exact specifications so any prospective buyer would need to have a nearly identical building.

Mr. Dygert says there have been some inquiries about the plant's control room where the sirens are wailing. A school that teaches people how to operate nuclear-power plants might be interested in the equipment.

As Dygert walks around the control room, Clyde Newson, a shift supervisor arrives. He shuts down the sirens and fire alarms. He says there is no cause for concern since "this building can't melt anything now."

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