Cuomo’s complicated Indian Point equation

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Indian Point. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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ALBANY—Because of its age and location just 30 miles from one of the country’s most densely populated regions, the Indian Point nuclear power plant has been a target for Andrew Cuomo since he first ran for governor in 2001.

Cuomo has also undertaken a number of clean-air initiatives, calling for caps on carbon emissions and increased investment in non-polluting renewable sources of energy.

The problem is that these environmental goals—closing a nuclear facility environmentalists say poses a safety hazard to the surrounding area, and satisfying environmental concerns on air pollution—are somewhat at odds.

Indian Point produces about a quarter of the energy needs of New York City. The 2,000 megawatts it sends to the grid are enough to power two million homes.

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Closing Indian Point, which produces 12 percent of the entire state’s energy needs without emissions, and replacing it with anything other than renewable energy sources would increase air pollution, according to Jordan Stutt, an energy policy analyst at the Pace Energy and Climate Center.

Though Cuomo doesn’t technically have the power to shutter Indian Point, since the decision to close nuclear plants is essentially a federal one, there is precedent in New York for a governor closing down a nuclear plant. Twenty-five years ago, Mario Cuomo followed through on a campaign promise to shut down the Shoreham nuclear facility on Long Island.

“No government has a right to say ‘shut the plant,’ but if he puts his weight behind it, it has a significant impact,” said Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and the director of the Nuclear Safety Project of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Another nuclear plant in New York could soon be shuttered. The The James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant, located on the shore of Lake Ontario, is widely considered to be at risk of closing, a victim of competition from cheaper power produced by burning natural gas.

Later this year, the plant’s owners, Entergy Corp., will shut down a plant out of state—Vermont Yankee—that faced the same pressure. The loss of FitzPatrick would take another source of relatively clean nuclear energy off the grid, and the source of 840 megawatts of power that will be nearly impossible to replace with renewables in the short term.

Faced with a similar decision, California utility regulators this month approved a plan to replace a nuclear reactor that supplied power to Los Angeles and San Diego with some natural gas-fired power plants as well as alternative energy sources. The plant had produced enough power to supply 1.4 million homes.

Many of the state’s most prominent environmental groups, including Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council, want Indian Point to shut down.

Still, among some environmentalists, there is a push for more nuclear power, because it has lower emissions and a single reactor can supply more power than thousands of acres of solar farms.

A group of influential climate scientists including James Hansen, of the Columbia University Earth Institute, released a statement in November that environmental risks associated with expanded nuclear energy were far lower than those for fossil fuels.

“While there will be no single technological silver bullet, the time has come for those who take the threat of global warming seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as one among several technologies that will be essential to any credible effort to develop an energy system that does not rely on using the atmosphere as a waste dump,” the group concluded.

Cuomo has proven that he has enough political might to push through legislative stalemates when he sees fit to do so. The property tax cap, marriage equality and the SAFE-Act were discussed for years before he took office.

The governor is clearly opposed to the continued operation of Indian Point. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, doing something about it doesn’t seem to be his top priority.

This article appeared in the April issue of Capital magazine.