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Time to Mothball Indian Point Nuclear Plant?

Indian Point Nuclear Plant
Indian Point Nuclear Plant near Peekskill, New York
New analysis suggests major source of New York's electricity could be replaced at small cost

On the eastern shore of the Hudson River, roughly 35 miles north of New York City, two squat concrete domes have churned out heat by splitting uranium atoms since 1976. Together, the two nuclear reactors at Indian Point produce nearly 17,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity a year -- enough to power more than 2 million homes and make the site one of the largest power plants in New York state.

Yet a new analysis commissioned by the environmental groups NRDC and Riverkeeper and released Monday suggests that Indian Point could be replaced within the next 10 years without much cost -- largely through energy efficiency measures and the development of renewable power sources. Simply put, the two groups argue that protecting the more than 17 million people who live within 50 miles of the nuclear power plant -- the radius the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggested should be evacuated in the wake of the meltdowns earlier this year at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan -- is worth the extra cost.

"No one wants to see a repeat (of the Japanese disaster) here in one of the most densely populated regions in the country," NRDC President Frances Beinecke said. "Fortunately, we have a wealth of safer energy sources ready to go that can fully replace the power from Indian Point."

Reasons to be concerned about Indian Point’s safety include earthquake zones discovered in the region after the plant was built in the 1960s. In 2005, a leaky pool allowed water laced with radioactive hydrogen to escape into local water supplies, and one of the reactors accidentally flooded in 1981 -- though neither accident resulted in significant damage or health impacts. In 2010, the nuclear plant had to vent steam, though its radioactivity was below the safe limits determined by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But if a natural disaster or other accident should ever prevent thousands of gallons of river water from cooling the reactors, the result could be a meltdown similar to the one in Fukushima after a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

The NRDC and Riverkeeper analysis, prepared by the energy consulting firm Synapse Energy Economics, says that nuclear power from Indian Point could be replaced for almost nothing. "The price impact is under $5 per month" on local electricity bills, said Kit Kennedy, an attorney for NRDC's air and energy program. That cost "feels modest compared to the $60 billion estimates for the financial consequences of Fukushima, not even taking the human devastation into account."

Entergy, the company that owns and operates Indian Point, did not immediately respond to OnEarth’s request for comment on Monday. But industry representatives have said the shutdown of Indian Point would leave the region vulnerable to blackouts and other reliability problems, and Entergy spokesman Jerry Nappi told Reuters: "It is clear that alternatives to Indian Point's power would result in serious environmental and economic consequences for New York City and Westchester residents.”

Federal, state, and local regulators are gearing up to decide whether Indian Point should receive a license to operate for another 20 years (the reactors’ licenses will run out in 2013 and 2015 respectively), a process that will likely lead to a decision next year, although delays are possible. The consultants’ report makes the case that alternatives could be found in energy efficiency, wind farms, and refurbishing old fossil fuel-fired power plants to produce more power instead. "The common sense solution is not to relicense this plant for another 20 years but to retire it and invest in more sustainable energy resources," Kennedy said.

In fact, the consultants say that three-fourths of the power provided by Indian Point could be met by energy efficiency efforts, such as retrofitting old buildings to require less electricity for heating and cooling. The recent retrofit of the Empire State Building cut energy use in the iconic skyscraper by 40 percent, and New York City has begun requiring buildings over 50,000 square feet to compare their energy use to industry standards -- a prelude to reductions. City government is looking to "strengthen the energy code to require more energy efficiency in the private building stock," said David Bragdon, director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City.

Such energy efficiency, which would need to reduce energy use of the entire New York region by at least 1.5 percent per year to cope with the loss of Indian Point, is "likely to be the lowest cost option, and would result in no additional CO2 emissions," the consultants’ report says.

In addition, wind farms have begun to crop up in the state's windy west and central regions, and the state government has begun to explore the potential for harnessing sea breezes, as well, though plans to build an offshore wind farm in the Rockaways have been put on hold. Any remaining electricity needs could be met by installing more efficient combined cycle gas turbines at existing power plants, according to the report.

But such gas turbines are hardly pollution free. Indian Point produces no air pollution during its operation, and replacing the energy it produces with electricity from natural gas would immediately boost carbon dioxide emissions in the state by 15 percent, while smog-forming nitrogen oxides would increase by as much as 8 percent, according to a report prepared for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection earlier this year. "Developing a solution in which there is no net emissions increase would be extraordinarily expensive," the authors of that report wrote.

"The CO2 impacts are going to depend on the mix of alternatives that are brought to bear," Kennedy acknowledged. She also noted that New York state's participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative -- a cap-and-trade program for power plant CO2 emissions in the northeastern region -- would ensure that emissions could not increase too much.

Fully one quarter of electricity generation in New York state already comes from burning natural gas. The infrastructure to use more doesn’t currently exist, though more than 4,200 megawatts-worth of new power plants have been proposed in New York state -- which would produce more than twice as much power as Indian Point can deliver. The pipelines to feed those new plants would also have to be built, and natural gas pipelines can explode, as seen in San Bruno, California, in September 2010.

Concerns about the sources of natural gas that would potentially help replace Indian Point are among the reasons why the Bloomberg administration "has been favorable toward Indian Point relicensing," in the words of Bragdon. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection report found that "every replacement option studied … including aggressive energy conservation, will result in a cost increase to energy consumers throughout the state.

For his part, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has argued to close Indian Point -- and state actions could conflict with the federal relicensing process. "There is no doubt that we need replacement power if we are to close Indian Point. There is also no doubt we can find it," Cuomo wrote in response to a citizen's question during a web chat on September 24. "My point has always been safety first and the reward doesn't justify the risk."

Already, the state has rejected attempts by Entergy to renew Indian Point’s water permits, arguing that cooling towers would need to be added to the site to minimize impacts on water quality and aquatic life. Indian Point kills millions of fish and other aquatic life annually by sucking in and spitting out hundreds of thousands of gallons of river water daily. Adding two cooling towers is estimated to cost $1.5 billion and might make continued operation of Indian Point economically unattractive.

It’s unclear whether the federal government could relicense Indian Point if the state did not grant it water quality certification. "I don't know for sure how that process would work," said Drew Stuyvenberg, environmental project manager for the Indian Point license renewal application at the NRC. At other nuclear power plants, such as FitzPatrick nuclear power plant near Oswego, New York, the NRC held off making a final decision until water quality certification was completed between Entergy and the state. That relicensing was approved in 2008. The application to renew the license of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo County is also on hold until that plant’s owners get the green light from California's water regulators.

Diablo Canyon is also under investigation for seismic risk in the wake of Fukushima. And the NRC has put Indian Point "at the top of the list" for its re-examination of seismic risk, due to the discovery of new fault lines in the region, according to NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan.

One wild card in Indian Point’s future is the onrushing problem of climate change. Already, unseasonable summers have boosted energy demand in the region -- the all-time peak for electricity use in New York City came last July 22 at 4 p.m., when temperatures hit 104 degrees Fahrenheit. That has left local utility Consolidated Edison concerned about meeting spikes in demand from window-mounted air conditioners, which tend to turn on all at once, according to Con Ed’s Colin Smart, , who spoke about the concern at an energy efficiency discussion on September 20. As it stands, Con Ed has a contract with Entergy to receive 350 megawatts from the Indian Point nuclear power plant in order to help meet peak demands.

Environmentalists acknowledge that adapting to climate change will require energy. "We need to pursue efforts that will deliver the greatest results, most quickly, at the lowest cost," said Kennedy, and that means increasing energy efficiency through stronger appliance standards and other means. "Those are much more cost-effective, sustainable solutions than keeping around a 40-year-old nuclear power plant that's sited in the most densely populated area of the U.S."

image of David Biello
David Biello is Scientific American's associate editor for environment and energy. He joined Scientific American in November 2005 and has written on subjects ranging from astronomy to zoology for both the website and the magazine. He has been reporti... READ MORE >
Why the question mark after the title of this article? Aren't we sure yet?
Lee Van Cleef lines in that spaghetti Western was : " I'm the one who can open the safe for you". Or, " I can open the safe without blowing it up". Waste to Energy is an option. A Plasma Furnace that takes left over Garbage from Barges in New York talk, and sends it into a clean Plasma Fire instead of messy, wasteful, landfills. Another is Hydrogen as fuel in turbines or Methanol. I hope that someday New York gets with the program.
I have read that 1,500 wind turbines could replace the output of the nuc reactor. Whether it is 1,500 or 10,000 windmills, the cost has to be less thant the total cost, operating cost and disposal/clean up costs of a nuclear plant. We have the sites for the windmills here in New York State. What is the problem?
I am glad that this is at least being considered. My biggest concern with nuclear power, after the health concerns, has to do with disposal. When a process creates toxic waste and there's really no good way to dispose or reuse the waste, that process isn't fit to be used on Earth. BTW, and this is a picky point, but the word choice ("mothballs") in the article's title.... not a word I would have chosen. And as a healthy home assessment person, I find mothballs in many homes--and they are very toxic, and must be taken to your local hazardous waste site for responsible handling/disposal.