by Barrett Seaman –
The title of the November 8th panel discussion at the Pace University School of Law was clearly worded to get the public’s attention—as well as to draw an audience: “How will all the lights stay on when Indian Point closes?”
As it turned out, that question was relatively easy to answer. More difficult were questions about the economic and environmental hurdles that must be overcome between now and April 2021, when the second of the two nuclear reactors is scheduled to shut down for good. Under the agreement announced last January and signed by New York State, the environmental group Riverkeeper and Entergy, the energy giant that owns the facility in Buchanan, NY, the first reactor will go dormant a year earlier, in 2020.
Leading off the panel was Michael DuLong, Riverkeeper’s principal negotiator for the agreement. He recapped the rationale for closing the two reactors, which were built in the mid-1970s and have produced some 2,000 megawatts of power annually since. Over the years, however, the plant site has accumulated 1,500 tons of spent fuel rods. Leaked radioactive tritium and strontium have formed plumes out into the Hudson. Each year, an estimated one billion fish have been killed either by being sucked into the plant’s huge water filters or by the water heat generated by the plant.
Mechanical failures have plagued the reactors over the years as well. Inspections have uncovered corroded baffle bolts that keep the reactor vessels pressurized. A transformer exploded in 2015. Critics say the plant’s security plan is inadequate, leaving it vulnerable to attack by air or from the river, and, as DuLong repeated, “there is no credible plan to evacuate the 20 million people who live within a 50-mile radius.” Moreover, said DuLong, Entergy “did not want to do what was needed to make it safe.”
As for replacing the 2,000 megawatts of power lost due to the closing, DuLong and other panelists were in agreement that New York State has the wherewithal to bring in more than enough electricity through a combination of transmission upgrades, greater use of renewable energy sources and increased efficiency.
Fully half of the replacement mega-wattage is expected to come via the Champlain Hudson Extension, a transmission link that will bring power generated by dams in Quebec down the Hudson Valley to the New York metropolitan area. The anticipated start date for the construction of that linkage, which is now fully permitted, is 2019. Pending negotiations with suppliers and utilities, it could begin providing power to this area in 2022. New York State claims that, all told, it has 4,600 megawatts poised to come on line, though DuLong cautioned that a significant piece of that comes from anticipated natural gas production.
To help put Indian Point’s capacity in perspective, panelist Karl R. Rabago, Executive Director of Pace’s Energy and Climate Center, noted that the two reactors represent a small percentage of the state’s overall capacity, albeit the equivalent of 25% of the demand by New York City and Westchester County. “But if it shut down now,” he observed, “we would not have to unscrew one out of four light bulbs.”
The key, said Rabago, with agreement from other panelists, is not just in adding capacity but also in increasing efficiency. Currently, New York State is improving its energy efficiency by only half a percent a year, where the goal is two percent. By contrast, Massachusetts has been improving by three percent annually.
One way efficiency is being achieved is through Combined Heat and Power systems which bring together the production of building heat with that of building electricity, where they have traditionally been generated separately. According to Rabago, New York State has the potential to realize nearly 7,000 megawatts of savings by combining heat and power, mostly in large buildings like hospitals, factories and office buildings.
The legislature in Albany is currently fashioning a bill that would mandate 0.4% annual energy savings by utilities across the state. Separately, New York City has legislation pending that would require old buildings to retrofit their heating and power systems as well as meet higher efficiency standards for all new buildings.
Most of the savings, Rabago emphasized, will come from individuals and communities adopting energy-saving practices. Savings will be achieved, he says, “one window, one furnace, one house at a time.”
For its part, the state’s goal is to get 75% of its total energy from wind and/or solar by 2050 with an interim 50% goal by 2030. The state already gets a quarter of its power through renewables, most of it from hydroelectric dams.
According to DuLong, the impact of Indian Point’s closure on utility rates will be minimal — between $1 and $5-per-month for each Westchester household, depending on the mix of energy sources.
Of greater concern to the panelists at Pace are the environmental and socioeconomic effects of closure. Peter D. Wolf, a Hastings attorney, CEO of the Center for Sustainable Development and co-host of the panel, said: “Between now and the time of closure will probably be the most dangerous.”
From an environmental standpoint, there are several concerns: how to dispose of the spent fuel rods at a time when the federal government has made no progress on creating a secure national storage area; how to clean up the 240-acre site; how to safely decommission the plant when the owner, Entergy, has no incentive to maintain it and when, in the view of the panelists, outside funding is insufficient to the task.
The economic impact will be significant, the panelists agreed. Tim Carey, the Energy Conservation and Sustainability Director for the county, referred to by Wolf as Westchester’s energy tsar, estimated that in addition to the 1,000 Entergy employees who will be idled, an additional 1,000 ancillary jobs will disappear. Moreover, surrounding municipalities, principally Buchanan and Montrose will lose some $32 million in tax revenues—a third of the school budget and half of Buchanan’s entire municipal budget, said Carey. The closure agreement includes a $15 million community support fund to facilitate “a just transition,” but that number is widely viewed as inadequate.
There is no credible plan to evacuate the 20 million people who live within a 50-mile radius. Moreover, Entergy did not want to do what was needed to make it safe.”