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Sustainable Saturday: After Indian Point

by Susan Hellauer

Environmental watchdog groups are over the moon. Area residents concerned about the two aging nuclear reactors’ glitches, defects and terror-target potential are breathing easier. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has finally bagged the big one: the full closure of the Indian Point nuclear power plant by April 2021. But not everyone is happy about shutting down Indian Point, or confident in the timely arrival of a clean energy future.

Sustainable Saturday is sponsored by Green Meadow Waldorf School, Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio

A deal is quietly hatched

An agreement to shutter the ailing Indian Point nuclear reactors in Buchanan, NY (Westchester County) was announced on January 9. Under the deal hammered out between New York State, Indian Point’s owner Entergy, and environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper, the plant’s two remaining nuclear reactors will be decommissioned by 2021.

As part of the agreement, Riverkeeper will drop legal challenges against Indian Point. Entergy will  keep its employees on board until the shutdown, finding new jobs within their organization for those who want them. The New Orleans-based energy company also says that it would move to state-of-the-art “dry cask” containment for spent fuel rods. The deal does allow for the plant to remain open for up to five additional years under certain extreme circumstances.

Indian Point: a troubled history

Indian Point

Indian Point. Photo courtesy Riverkeeper

Since the long-defunct first of its three reactors came on line in 1962, Indian Point, which provides 25-30 percent of the metro area’s power needs, has been plagued by explosions, leaks, fires, shutdowns and alarming wear-and-tear to essential components. Each incident has raised the specter of a nuclear meltdown just 25 miles upstream from the nation’s densest population center.

To add hair-raising dismay to this scenario, a 42-inch diameter high-pressure natural gas pipeline being constructed by Spectra Partners is slated to run across Indian Point’s campus. That’s much too close for comfort, say resident and other watchdog groups. And the current outmoded storage of spent fuel rods (picture them piled up in an old swimming pool) could be a big, bad accident waiting to happen.

Finally, the threat of terrorism has drawn a bright red bulls-eye on Indian Point in the minds of many of the 18 million people within a 50-mile radius of the nuclear facility.

Retire and replace?

So, where is the 2000 megawatts per year of power created by Indian Point going to come from when the aging facility shuts down? According to Governor Cuomo, the answer is every shade of green: “This administration has been aggressively pursuing and incentivizing the development of clean, reliable energy, and the state is fully prepared to replace the power generated by the plant at a negligible cost to ratepayers.” Grid distribution improvements and energy-efficient building construction requirements are also part of the plan.

Riverkeeper’s president Paul Gallay is just as confident:

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Indian Point can and will be closed without additional natural gas or other carbon based fuel. That’s the benefit of the 2020-2021 closing date. Our modeling, and that of the state, indicates that reasonable measures can replace Indian Point’s power with clean, green energy and increased efficiency. Indeed, it’s already happening. 

One project alone [the Champlain Hudson Power Express] could provide 1,000 megawatts of hydropower – 50 percent of Indian Point’s capacity – and that project has all its approvals. Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson also assured that it would have no adverse impacts on the river, by forcing major project changes.

Cheering, with an eye on the bills

Watchdog groups like Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson and the Natural Resources Defense Council are ecstatic. But they’re also worried about the safety of the shut-down process. Expert opinion, while somewhat cautious, seems to be aligning with Cuomo’s hopes for a clean energy future.

Most local lawmakers are happy about the end of Indian Point. But they voice concerns on their constituents’ behalf about jobs, shut-down safety, and, especially, the risk of rising energy bills. Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY 18), whose district surrounds Indian Point, congratulates Gov. Cuomo on the phaseout, but sounds a warning:

This agreement must include concrete plans to protect the jobs of hundreds of New Yorkers and keep energy prices low for my neighbors in the Hudson Valley. We can balance safety concerns with the security of local jobs and low energy bills and I will continue working with New York State to ensure the burden of shutting down Indian Point isn’t placed on the backs of hardworking folks in the Hudson Valley.

Indian Point

Nuclear fuel pellets and a fuel rod. Photo: US Dept. of Energy

Other local officials, including State Senator David Carlucci and Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY 17), echo the sentiment of Maloney’s statement. Carlucci (D-Rockland/Westchester) has a special interest in the safe storage of spent fuel rods. According to his statement on the Indian Point closure, he has sponsored legislation to establish a state Nuclear Storage Safety Fund to keep radioactive leftovers from causing trouble.

Not cheering, with an eye on the bottom line

Westchester County Executive, Republican Rob Astorino (Cuomo’s unsuccessful gubernatorial rival in 2014), is furious about potential loss of revenue and jobs for his county. And he’s not happy about the lack of consultation with affected local stakeholders.

“This is very typical behavior for Governor Cuomo,” Astorino said in a January 9 press conference in Tarrytown. Flanked by other angry Westchester municipal officials, he added that the Entergy deal lacked transparency: “three people in a room: the governor, the head of the power company, and Riverkeeper, got to cut a good deal for themselves, leaving the taxpayers and the ratepayers holding the bag . . . This is, again, New York State chasing away a business that pays taxes . . . and we all have to make up the difference,” said the County Exec.

Astorino went on to say that Westchester County will be out $4.5 million annually in tax revenues, and the Town of Cortlandt will have to come up with $1 million to replace income from the departing utility. He also noted that the Village of Buchanan draws half its budget from Indian point PILOT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) revenues.

(Cuomo’s statement does take note of the tax impacts. Revenues to county and municipal entities would stay steady until 2021, after which they would be stepped down.)

Doubters have popped up in the media, unwilling to drink Cuomo’s green kool-aid. They predict an expensive, carbon-laden future for metro New York’s energy consumers. A New York Post op-ed by a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, predicts huge potential rate increases. A Forbes Magazine op-ed (by another Manhattan Institute fellow) sees New York’s recent rejections of fracking, along with grassroots opposition to petroleum pipelines, as leaving few options beyond foreign oil if the green energy dream doesn’t come true by 2021.

The nuclear money pit

Indian Point

Spent nuclear fuel storage pool. Image: US Dept. of Energy

Despite a history of reactor mishaps, Entergy insists that their motive for agreeing to decommission Indian Point is “a decision driven by economics,” according to their announcement.

A report earlier this week on National Public Radio’s Marketplace, notes that Indian Point is far from the only financially strapped nuclear plant. Since the 9/11 terror attacks and the 2011 Fukushima disaster, nuclear reactors have faced steadily rising costs for security and seismic protection. Add to that a changing marketplace, with cheap electricity from cheap natural gas. Experts estimate that up to half of all nuclear power plants now find themselves in the red. In some markets, a push toward clean, renewable energy and smarter distribution grids “makes the long-term outlook even more challenging,” according to Marketplace.

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A low-carbon diet

Indian Point

Dry cask storage area. Holds spent fuel that has been stored in a pool for one or more years. Photo: US Nuclear Regulatory Agency

In any case, Cuomo’s low-carbon Indian Point replacement plan has just put New York into the sustainability spotlight. Other states with money-losing, superannuated nuclear power plants will be watching closely.

Can Cuomo’s green-energy cutover succeed? Yes, it is possible—unless the next governor is a climate change-denying businessman who can’t get fossil fuels out of the ground fast enough. But what are the chances of that?

Learn more:

Nyack News and Views Sustainable Saturday: “A Bad Year for Indian Point

Associated Press: “Experts: NY can absorb closing of Indian Point nuke plant

Wall Street Journal: “Indian Point Closure Won’t Leave New York in the Dark: New hydropower and increased transmission capacity expected to provide electrical power”

Gov. Cuomo’s announcement of the Indian Point agreement

Entergy’s press release regarding the phaseout agreement

President Barack Obama: “The irreversible momentum of clean energy” in Science

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Sustainable Saturdays, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Green Meadow Waldorf School, Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.

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