The original 40-year licenses for the two nuclear reactors at Indian Point are due for 20-year extensions this September and in 2015, respectively. Hearings by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were started late last year and no final decision is realistically expected for several years. It is well known that Governor Cuomo, other agencies and some members of the public want the reactors shut down due to their proximity to the large New York metropolitan area, with the Fukushima disaster presumably providing additional rationale.
From a national energy and environmental standpoint, nuclear power is a desirable way to generate electricity. Once a plant is built, the operating costs are low and there is no discharge of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In comparison, large power plants must burn oil, natural gas or coal. Oil has become too expensive, while natural gas is becoming the most desirable fuel. It does result in carbon dioxide discharges, though at much lower rates than coal. Coal is the least desirable, but will continue to be used for many decades in spite of Federal initiatives to shut down the most highly polluting plants. The only other option is Canadian hydroelectric power. Neither solar or wind power could reasonably make up the amount of electricity Indian Point generates, which is about 25% of the total power consumed in the New York Metropolitan area.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency(EIA), Indian Point typically generates 94% of its rated capacity on an annual basis. Wind farms and utility size solar facilities typically generate annually 25% and 14% respectively of their rated capacity,
With natural gas now the fuel of choice for the nation’s power plants, it is ironic that Governor Cuomo has been resisting the lifting of the state moratorium on the use of “fracking” for natural gas. Understandably, the governor, who will shortly be running for reelection, is caught between a rock (environmental opponents of fracking) and a hard place (communities located over the huge Marcellus shale who stand to earn millions from royalties and the oil companies, who want to extract and sell the gas.) A decision to shut down Indian Point, together with a decision against fracking would leave natural gas (from fracking in adjacent Pennsylvania and elsewhere) or Canadian hydro power as the only logical sources to make up the needed supply.
There has never been an accident-based fatality at our many nuclear plants. Nevertheless, the well-publicized leak at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979 effectively halted nuclear power plant construction for decades. Some years ago, we did restart construction of nuclear plants, though granting of other new licenses has now been temporarily stopped due to concern about the spent fuel stored at all nuclear power plants. At one time, it was planned that spent fuel from all plants should be transported to a site thousands of feet under Yucca Flats in Nevada, but this solution was vetoed by President Obama and Senator Harry Reid. Unless another such site is identified and authorized, all nuclear plants, including those shut down, will have to continue to store the spent fuel at the plant sites. This requires well-designed protection and shielding, but is not considered acceptable as a long term solution.
All things considered, including the fact that we are unlikely to experience a Fukushima type tsunami 25 miles up the Hudson, we are left with the possibility of a potentially devastating terrorist attack as the only reason to consider shutting down Indian Point. Since 9/11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Homeland Security have developed specific plans and strategies to deal with such an event, including the impact of an aircraft, techniques to restore cooling for the reactor core and mitigation of damage to spent fuel pools. Importantly, it should be noted that even if Indian Point is shut down, the highly radioactive spent fuel would continue to be stored at the plant site, vulnerable to a terrorist attack – it has no place to go.
These are the facts underlying the decision on Indian Point. In my opinion, they add up to keeping the plant in operation.