Nuclear Power for NYC: HII Follows a Debate on Indian Point

Since the mid 1970s, the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, located in Westchester County on the east bank of the Hudson River and less than 40 miles north of New York City, has been generating roughly 2000 megawatts of energy. This accounts for 40% of the State’s net nuclear generation, meets up to 30% of energy demand for Westchester County and New York City combined (depending on seasonal demand and operating portfolio), and is one of the “cleanest” forms of energy produced here, to date. The 40-year permits of its two active rectors (the first was permanently closed in 1974) are due to expire in 2013 and 2016, and Entergy Nuclear Northeast (a subsidiary of Entergy Corporation), which owns and operates the power plant, has submitted a proposal for 20-year license renewals.

But in recent light of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that devastated Japan only a year ago, will this proposal be approved? With strong support on both sides (e.g. Mayor Bloomberg for license renewal and Andrew Cuomo against), the public debate surrounding this issue has become highly controversial. On March 1, 2012, four experts met at a forum organized by Columbia Law School’s Center for Climate Change Law in order to discuss the future of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant.

“The stakes are high and no one would dispute that,” stated Paul Gallay, President of Riverkeeper, Inc., in speaking about the possibility of a nuclear accident comparable to those that we have seen in the past occurring at nn Point. If this accident were to resemble the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, 5.6 million people would need to shelter-in-place or evacuate, and an area from the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant to the George Washington Bridge would become uninhabitable for generations. If it were to resemble theChernobyl disaster, this area would extend to the end of Manhattan, and a 7% increase in the cancer rate would occur within the 50-mile zone. “You can just imagine how many cancers that would be, since [there are] 18 million people living within this 50 mile zone,” Gallay noted.

“And the risks [of such earthquake and fire-related events occurring] are real,” he continued. A 2003 study by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory concluded that the a magnitude 6.0 earthquake is possible in Westchester County, citing two fault lines that run in close proximity to the nuclear plant. However, no hard evidence has been documented to show that the plant can handle an earthquake greater than a magnitude of 5.0. Furthermore, the main waterline for firefighting in the area has not been earthquake tested, while significant holes in complying with the fire-safety codes for the plant exist. And since the September 11th attacks, when it was feared that one of the planes might have been directed toward the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, the risk of terrorism has also become real.

For these reasons, among many others, Gallay and Ashok Gupta, Director of Energy Policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, advocate shutting down the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant and finding alternatives for its energy generation. “We learn to live with impacts because we think we have no choice,” Gupta stated. But there are other choices. “We don’t have to have our lights go out if we don’t relicense Indian Point.” Each form of electricity generation has its own risks, he admitted, so the question becomes one of trade-offs. How do we create the right energy portfolio to meet our immediate and long-term needs while maintaining affordability and minimizing the risks?

Gupta suggested making up the 2000 megawatts of energy that would be lost by closing Indian Point from renewable energies, increased transmission from upstate New York, repowering of natural gas plants in New York City, and most importantly, improved energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is “the greatest resource that we have available to us in the next 20 years,” he stated. “There is no reason that every building [in New york City] can’t be made 20, 30, or 40% more energy efficient with the technology we have now.”

But Arthur J. Kremer, Chairman of the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance, disagreed with the need for this new energy portfolio. He described the opposition to re-licensing the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant as, “probably one of the worst campaigns of misinformation.” He believes this opposition is unrealistically driven by fear, when in fact; nuclear power is safer and far cleaner than many other forms of electricity generation used today. “We continually send our citizens to Iraq and Afghanistan who die in the pursuit of oil,” Kremer noted, “while 30,000 or more Americans die each year at coal plants, and just last year, an accident at a natural gas plant in Connecticut killed a number of plant workers.”

John Kelly, the former Director of Licensing of the Indian Point Nuclear Power plant, who chose to reside in the area immediately surrounding Indian Point even after his retirement, advocated for the plant’s safety, even after 40 years of use. Kremer pointed out that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent over the years to continually upgrade Indian Pont and maintain its safety, and there is no other nuclear power plant in the United States that has been inspected by the federal government as much as Indian Point.

Kelly additionally argued that nuclear power generation is not unsafe by nature. He explained that the disasters that have occurred in the past at nuclear power plants around the world are unique to their own plant design and siting. Furthermore, plant operators are trained every 6 weeks with simulators on how to respond to emergencies if one were to occur. “If an evacuation is necessary,” Kelly asserted, “it can be done.” Quoting James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who conducted astudy on the adequacy of Indian Point’s evacuation plan, however, Gallay stated that it is a “paper plan for a paper emergency.”

Echoing Gupta, Kremer asserted that some portion of each form of energy’s production is inherently dangerous. But those in favor of shutting-down Indian Point are often opposed to every form of electricity generation, not solely nuclear, he explained. “Its an incessant campaign of ‘no, no, no’.” But the fact of the matter is, we need more power today and for the future, not less. The power generated by Indian Point keeps New York City’s hospitals and subways running, he noted. If it is replaced by alternatives, higher electricity costs will follow. “If you take [Indian Point] offline, Kremer stated, you are playing economic Russian roulette with the poor for the city.”

Furthermore, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution levels will increase dramatically nuclear power generation is lost, he argued. To a mother living in the Bronx who has a child with asthma, Kremer said, closing a power plant with no emissions threats is a poor decision. So, “It’s not really the time for New York, the Empire State, to be shutting down power plants with no real replacement,” he concluded.

But real replacements do exist, rebutted Gupta. New York State’s total energy capacity is 40,000 megawatts. “Two out of the 40,000 is important, but not impossible,” he stated, especially when 80% of the total state demand comes from New York City and only 5,000 megawatts can be supplied for the city from outside sources. Galley reiterated that energy demand could be met through 2020 by just “taking the low-hanging fruit,” readily available energy efficiency. In the long term, costs would increase by 1 to 3% (or $1 to $3 per month) with further replacements, but this is a small price to pay to avoid such risk. “Anyone who says it can’t be done probably has a stake in keeping it open,” he concluded.

But do people have a right to such stakes? To a question from the audience asking, “What [will happen] to the good paying jobs [at Indian Point]?” Gupta responded, “This is not a decision that we have reached lightly.” But if Indian Point were to decommission promptly after closure, good jobs would exist for 8-15 years and new jobs would be created alternative power replacements. “We made a calculated determination [based on many factors].”

The one idea both parties seemed to agree with during the debate is that there is no single best way to meet New York City’s energy demand, and any decisions made in the future will involve challenging trade-offs. Which trade-offs do you think should be made?The re-licensing hearing for the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant will commence later this year, with a decision expected for late 2012 or early 2013. A video of the March 1, 2012 Forum on the Future of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant is available

By Sarah Fackler, 2012 Human Impacts Institute New York City Climate Coalition Building Intern

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