In this, the final (and shortest) episode of Indian Point Blackout Week, Robert talks to James Shillitto, the president of Utility Workers Union of America Local 1-2, which represents many of the workers who worked at the nuclear plant. Shillitto, who spent three decades of his career as an electrical lineman, said “Indian Point closed because of fear…fear of the unknown, fear of what people see in a movie” and fear prevailed even though the plant operated safely for “58 years with no real problems.”

Episode Transcript

Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, it’s Robert Bryce. This is the power hungry podcast, we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And this interview is a continuation of Indian Point blackout week, we’ve done four interviews so far with a lot of people. And today I’m pleased to talk with James shillitoe. He is the president of the utility workers union of America local one, dash two, which is the local that where the workers at the Buchanan plant, the Indian Point plant are affiliated. Is that correct, James?

James Shillitto 0:36
That’s correct. The majority of the workforce at Indian Point, or local one, there’s two members, of course, with any plant, they were other, you know, people in and out, but we were the primary workforce for the operations and maintenance of the plant.

Robert Bryce 0:51
Great. So James, I just do you mind. I know I gave you a title that I podcasts, I’d like people to introduce themselves. So could you give us just 30 seconds or no, you’re the president of the local tech, something else about about yourself, if you don’t mind.

James Shillitto 1:05
So as you said, I am the president of local one dish to the utility workers union of America. Our membership is about 7500, scattered across 11 different companies. We know origins where Con Edison is the utility in New York City and Westchester County. So when deregulation came about, they have it the sell off, well, they have power production, because they chose to become a distribution company. So over the various companies that bought the plants. My members continue to work there. And we continue to negotiate for them. So it’s energy. At the time, it has been called out and went to mpg. And then we have other companies like NRG, Eastern Gen, LS power, New York Power Authority. And then we have a few other like tree trimming companies, water companies in that. Sure.

Robert Bryce 2:01
And what is your specialty, sir? What do you work in utility?

James Shillitto 2:04
So I worked for Con Edison for 30 years, and I was a troubleshoot alignment.

Robert Bryce 2:10
So you climb poles, and yes, you can handle

James Shillitto 2:13
storms and all of that, yes, the lights went out the pole came down. That was my job. Yes,

Robert Bryce 2:18
that’s arguably one of the most dangerous jobs in, in, in, in any sector, right. I

James Shillitto 2:23
mean, it was challenging at times. But like anything, if you know what you’re doing, don’t get too cocky and work safe. You’ll go home.

Robert Bryce 2:32
Good. So let me cut to the chase here, James. And men, by the way, today’s your your wedding anniversary, so I’m not going to keep you. Why did Indian Point close?

James Shillitto 2:43
Well, in the endpoint close, because of fear is my opinion, fear of unknown fear of what people see in a movie and whatnot. So river creeper, and a few other environmentalist groups have been pushing for decades to have it closed. And eventually they got an ear that listened. And that was Governor Cuomo. And a deal was made to close in the endpoint. We had keep these three other nuclear power plants in New York State. They’re further upstate in the sea, Oswego. And I can’t recall the other areas, but farther upstate, and the fear was that it’s too close to New York City. But the plant was constructed to withstand the jet airplane crashing into it, it operated for 58 years, with no major issues. It ran before it closed for 758 days, I believe, which was a record for nuclear plants running consecutively in the world. It was a well trained and dedicated workforce. I mean, proof of that is we as the local found out about the closure five years ago, and we negotiated a package for the members to stay there because, you know, once people know they have an end date, they stopped looking for somewhere else to land, if they still going to work in a 35 year old guy with two kids and a mortgage in his new job. So rather than split, we negotiated a way to keep them there. And did you did a good part by offering them jobs if they wanted to elsewhere and their nuclear fleet. So some people move to Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, others chose retirement and then we have about 120 people are going to work over the next couple of years helping to decommission the plant.

Robert Bryce 4:46
How do you feel about it? I mean, you know you’ve been you’re you’re an experienced workman. You’ve been doing this your entire career. What is this like for you and your colleagues in the Union to see this plant close when In my view, which should not have been closed and could have been kept running for decades,

James Shillitto 5:04
well, I’ve, it’s a lot of different feelings for the workers, I really feel a sense of sadness and loss for them, because, you know, they’ve built their lives around working yet many of the people in that plant as in other power plants saw ex Navy veterans, and they worked, you know, when the engine rooms, ships, and that was a natural fit. So although, you know, those that worked in the nuclear fit, it’s a natural fit, there was a lot of a lot of people like that, you know, veterans that gave their years of service to the country. Now here, the state government basically made a deal to put them out to pasture. So, you know, you feel a sense of loss. Also, it we’ve done what we can, we’re still trying to help transition some workers to some of the other companies we represent. But fossil fuels nuke is, you know, a big talk and on it, and that’s the next to go. You know, here in New York, our governor has a very ambitious plant of 70%, less fossil fuels burning for power production by 2030, and 100% by 2040. Now, closing into your point, you took away 1000 megawatts last Friday of clean energy. So now we got to get 1000 megawatts of renewable energy, just the breakeven. And in the meantime, that loss of power is taken on by recently constructed or refurbished fossil plants, they burning gas to make up for that loss of power. So it’s, you know, it’s confusing as to it doesn’t seem logical, you know, much like I say, in the fossil plants, many of them are looking to repower. And the cry now is similar to what was done in the point, no, we have to shut them down. Rather than let them read power, and burn cleaner, up until 2040. The environmentalists don’t want allow them to do anything. So they’re going to let them continue to burn with the outdated turbines and reduce more pollution than if they repowered. So I went off a little bit of Indian Point. But the point is, is if they didn’t shut down in the endpoint, we would be able to take all of these gas plants at a service sooner. And then once we put his I don’t know, how many moon mills are going to be out in the ocean, but it’s gonna be quite a few. And how many utility size solar farms upstate New York, there’ll be a few. But there’s not a piece of equipment in the ocean yet. Nor is there anything in the field of utility size. So we we’ve had an uphill battle to just break even. So it doesn’t logically make sense. And so to deal with causing the point, by the way, was made prior to this plan to get to no fossil fuel burning by 2040. I believe if that plan came out prior to the closure of Indian points, it would it would have stayed running. It would have made more sense.

Robert Bryce 8:27
So the closure of this does it make you cynical about politics and the the green groups that push for the closure?

James Shillitto 8:35
A little bit? Yeah. I mean, listen, I get it. They’re their heart is in the right place. But their process is wrong. And they’re not looking at all of the facts. They look at the facts that fit what they want. And, as I’ve said, we’ll see what the future is. If there’s going to be rolling blackouts or brownouts at time when it’s peak power in the summer, particularly in New York City. You know, there’s only so much power that can be wheeled in right now. We have to build new transmission lines. And that’s it. I’m still on the drawing board, then you have the nimbyism of nobody wants it in their town or in their area. So we got to get past that stuff. So

Robert Bryce 9:25
So then I want to turn back to what you said first, right at the outset, Jameson, and my guest, if you’re listening is James shillitoe. He’s the president of the utility workers union of America local One, two, where the majority of the workers at Indian Point were part of this union. Well, let me ask you that. So how many how many of your members are losing their jobs?

James Shillitto 9:49
Um, it’s a complicated answer. So the union is losing about 300 members. Now I don’t have the exact numbers, but there’s around maybe 100 of them, that will be going elsewhere in the energy system. So still working there. Others have chosen retirement, that’s about 80 or 90. And we’re gonna have about another 120 or so working for at least the next two to three years for decommissioning. So, when it’s all said and done, we’ll have lost over 400 members, people that are out of work, it’s a that’s a tough one. There’s not too many people that actually, they didn’t have a place where we were able to negotiate a landing spot from pretty much everybody. Not gonna say there hasn’t been just a couple that didn’t make the cut. There are I don’t have exact number, but it’s pretty low. We were, again, because we had a few years to work on this. It just didn’t happen overnight. I mean, I can only imagine what it is in Detroit when they just shut the plant down with less, you know, we had a few years to plan for it. But overall the closure of Indian Point, roughly 1000 people are going to be either Yeah,

Robert Bryce 11:03
sure, between the move or lost their jobs

James Shillitto 11:06
altogether. Yeah. And in the town is going to take a huge hit from the tax base. You know, they were actually you know, although we argued with them many times over contracts, but the end of the day, they were a good employer, they gave back to their community. And, you know, they took care of the fire department, and they took care of the schools. And it’s just a big sense of loss for the town. Many of my members actually live there. So my my members that work for the other companies that I represent live in that town, and they can and now, yes,

Robert Bryce 11:38
yeah, yes. Yes. And that was the that was what mayor, Mayor Knickerbocker and I talked about the other day, and she was in the, if you saw I made a documentary called juice. And she was in the film and just you know, she is someone who’s a native to Buchanan. I mean, she’s was clearly distressed about this. Yeah, just go back to that point. And then I don’t want to keep you very long, especially on your anniversary. But that fear issue, what what was it justified? You You said that the plant had run for what was it? 58 years? Yeah, with no with no significant accident? Because even after the plant closed, the Natural Resources Defense Council, will it right before saying oh, this plant is unsafe? And this is, you know, this is not going to, you know, this is dangerous? And they exploited that?

James Shillitto 12:25

Robert Bryce 12:25
it was that? Was that fair? And were they just exploiting the people’s worst? You know, the worst fears? I mean, it was at fair play in your view.

James Shillitto 12:38
No, I don’t, and it was playing on people’s fears. So you know, anything from a movie that people have seen, or, you know, Chernobyl or Fukushima, all of which situations did not in any way, relate to Indian Point in the point was built very, very safely, you know, and then I believe they say there was a fault line, a fault line that I don’t know, the numbers, but it has not been an earthquake in that area, and probably 500 years on, I could be overstating it, but it’s just, it was just, that’s the type of unfair practice, they went newsed you know, any little thing that would make people say, Oh, we got to get this out of here. You know, there’s the evacuation plan. And, you know, we, and Gavin, the resident,

Robert Bryce 13:28
and Governor Cuomo played into that hand.

James Shillitto 13:31
Yeah, yeah. It’s, I mean, I, I’m not going to people who spoke have some deals that were made, I don’t know of them. So I won’t comment on them. But it is curious that they kept the three plants upstate, continuing, and chose this one. And the reason they made everybody aware that it’s too close to the city, there’s not a good evacuation plan. It’s dangerous, it’s failing, and it’s all false false information. And, you know, people that are not in the know about nuclear, you know, I guess that would scare them, you know. But again, 50 years successful, probably could have been another 58 years.

Robert Bryce 14:20
Well, maybe we should leave it there. It’s unfortunate, deeply unfortunate. And it’s, it’s a it’s a closure. That should not have happened, but it did. And I wanted to get you on this podcast just to briefly talk about the union membership, because I’ll ask you just one last thing that the issue that the Biden ministration, the Cuomo administration has talked about with renewables or they’re going to create a lot of union jobs sometime in the future, but there it seems to me they’re trading good union jobs. well paying jobs now for something that might happen sometime some in the future,

James Shillitto 14:54
well, isn’t gonna happen. Is

Robert Bryce 14:57
that a fair trade to trade the things you have now for something that might happen? Some of the time.

James Shillitto 15:03
For me, it’s not so I do believe it’s gonna happen. But it’s it’s 10 to 15 years down the road, before it really gets to where it needs to be. The majority of the jobs that will be created by all these renewables is the construction. And that’s one and done the jobs to continue. And I’ll I give you an example, we have another plant in Queens that I have maybe 150 people working there. And when it goes to renewables, it’s going to have a battery storage and some other things, we’ll probably have 25 people working there. Okay, that’s happened to have another plant we had that was closed down. And we went from 200 people working in 240. So these new plants, and the renewables don’t require much operations and maintenance personnel, it’s far less. And, you know, we got we got it’s a challenge now for us to train people to get that work. And to keep it you good union jobs, because I’m sure a lot of these companies would prefer it to be non union, and that’s obviously not going to be as well paid. Sure. So it’s given us some challenges. And, you know, it’s unfortunate, but we’ll do what we have to do to get it

Robert Bryce 16:24
done. An average union worker in your in your union, Sir, how much were they making on an hourly or annual basis?

James Shillitto 16:31
In the mid 40s 45 $48? Average? Her I mean, it’s, you know, a nuclear plant operator, he was probably making $65 an hour. Okay. Gotcha. But then, you know, there’s So on average in the mid 40s. You know, good, good paying jobs. Sure.

Robert Bryce 16:51
Well, Mr. shillito, thank you for your time. I appreciate it. You’re welcome. Sorry, sorry to interrupt your anniversary.

James Shillitto 16:56
It’s not it was by my choice. I didn’t want to get on with you. I feel this was an important topic. And if you have more questions in the future, just give me a call. Okay. All right.

Robert Bryce 17:07
Good luck to you, sir. Thank you. Thank

James Shillitto 17:08
you. Bye bye bye.

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