Big change in store for New York nuclear in 2016
New York’s nuclear energy landscape is poised to shift dramatically in 2016, as it shrinks by one reactor and as the governor readies a policy that would recognize nuclear as a key bridge fuel to a renewable-powered future.
At least one of the state’s six nuclear reactors may be shuttered, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is aggressively targeting two more, both at the Indian Point facility in Westchester, for closure. A fourth faces closure in less than two years, though a new Cuomo administration climate initiative could extend its life for at least another decade.
Collectively, the six reactors, housed at four plants, represent about 3,500 megawatts of power — enough to power more than 3 million homes — and contribute a third of the state’s power. As the state shifts toward renewable energy, under a mandate to power half its electrical grid with solar and wind by 2030, nuclear also supplies about 60 percent of its carbon-free power.
Closing just one reactor today, before any more renewable resources are built, could worsen air pollution by almost 10 percent, a market analysis by the global investment firm UBS found. Replacing that reactor could take hundreds of wind turbines or many thousands of solar panels.
But community groups are concerned about the potential for accidents, and environmentalists about the toll nuclear takes on water resources and the wildlife killed when reactors use river or lake water for cooling — particularly at Indian Point, less than 30 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River.
The Cuomo administration is meanwhile targeting that facility on multiple fronts, including by rejecting its coastal certification, required by state regulators to protect waterways from development and industry.
The plant’s operator, Entergy, has won the battle over that certification so far, but the fight is expected to come before the state’s highest court in early 2016. Should Entergy lose before the Court of Appeals, it could be forced to cut a deal to close the plant in the next decade.
Both of Indian Point’s licenses are now expired, and whether to renew them — a process expected to take years — is largely up to the federal government. But the state has a say in a few key steps in that process, and it’s using it to pressure Entergy into closing Indian Point.
In November, Jim Malatras, Cuomo’s director of state operations, asked the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to oppose the plant’s relicensing, citing “embrittled reactor pressure vessels and fatigued metals on key reactor components” and saying there was no safety evacuation route for the 20 million people living within 50 miles of it in case of a serious accident. But the NRC hasn’t flagged that as an issue that should lead to the plant’s closure.
The fate of Entergy’s James A. FitzPatrick nuclear facility in Oswego, however, appears more decided.
That plant is likely to close by year’s end: It’s on track to lose about $60 million this year, and last month the market cheered news that Entergy would shutter it. Its only hope for salvation is the new Cuomo administration policy that would effectively use nuclear as a bridge fuel while the state expands its renewable industry.
The administration and Entergy have been in closed-door talks for months, but the public rhetoric concerning the fate of the plant — which employs 600 and contributes $17 million in taxes to area municipalities — has been tense, with both sides sniping at each other. Cuomo has called Entergy “callous” and accused it of prioritizing its bottom line at the expense of its workforce, while Entergy says the state isn’t proposing any viable plans to save the plant.
Although plans to close the plant are purely financial, largely spurred by competition from cheap natural gas, and will save the company $250 million in the next five years, Cuomo has threatened legal action against Entergy.
And while his administration has cut deals to save other pieces of upstate’s aging energy infrastructure, no such deal has emerged for FitzPatrick. The administration floated a vague plan for Exelon to help resupply the plant, but Entergy executives accused the company of trying to curry favor with the state by agreeing to a plan that made little business sense.
By contrast, the Exelon-run two-reactor Nine Mile Point facility in nearby Oswego is financially healthy and isn’t in danger of closing. Exelon’s R.E. Ginna facility east of Rochester, on the other hand, is losing money, but because it’s needed for grid reliability, it’s being subsidized by utility ratepayers until 2017.
Environmental groups worry the administration will keep moving to save even those nuclear plants that can’t survive in the open market.
“What we need is to accelerate a just transition plan to ensure workers are prepared for jobs in the new green energy economy — not a dangerous deal that puts millions of people in the greater New York City metropolitan area and Western NY at risk,” said Manna Jo Greene, environmental action director for the Hudson River advocacy group Clearwater.
Next month, in his State of the State address, Cuomo plans to introduce a new policy to create incentives for utilities to buy nuclear power as a bridge fuel until the state can reach its goal of renewables powering half the electric grid by 2030.
The operators of New York’s nuclear facilities are split on that plan. Exelon spokesman David Tillman said the company was hopeful it would prove a “constructive step” toward using nuclear to promote the transition to clean energy. But Entergy has already dismissed the plan, calling it vague and saying it would take far longer to implement than the administration has said.
“At this point in time, there is no real definition to the standard, so it’s unclear what that means to the economics,” said Entergy Wholesale Commodities president Bill Mohl. “We’re focusing on decommissioning, which takes a lot of time and effort.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the winter 2016 issue of POLITICO New York magazine.