New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans this week to close the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which supplies electricity to New York City and surrounding areas. The plant’s two working reactors — which account for roughly 10 percent of the state’s power generation — are slated to go offline in 2020 and 2021, more than a decade ahead of schedule.
Some environmentalists celebrated the closure. Others lamented the loss of a carbon-free source of energy, despite nuclear power’s potential hazards to humans and wildlife.
Nuclear power plants represent a range of risks, from hazardous radioactive waste to a full-scale meltdown. They also supply the bulk of America’s zero-carbon electricity. In laying out its carbon-cutting goals, the Environmental Protection Agency assumed that existing nuclear power plants would continue to hum and buzz for decades to come. But cheap natural gas is digging into the profits of America’s aging nuclear power plants, pressuring them to close ahead of schedule.
Some states, like Illinois, have thrown a lifeline to nuclear, subsidizing struggling plants, lest they be replaced by carbon-spewing natural gas. New York, by contrast, is betting that the hole created by Indian Point’s closure will be filled with solar, wind and hydropower.
In a statement, Cuomo said the plant’s closure won’t drive up emissions “at the regional level.” Given New York’s ambitious climate policies, he might be right.
New York has big plans for clean energy.
This week, Cuomo called for states belonging to the Northeast carbon trading program to further limit carbon pollution. He also announced that New York would cut carbon emissions by an additional 30 percent by 2030. As part of its energy plan, New York will require 50 percent of its power to come from renewables by 2030.
To help integrate renewables, New York is remaking its power grid, incentivizing utilities to advance distributed energy — rooftop solar panels, community solar arrays and microgrids. It’s also building power lines to supply New York City with wind and hydroelectric power generated upstate. Cuomo promised that new hydropower and improved transmission would largely fill the gap left by Indian Point. He’s said the shift will come “at a negligible cost to ratepayers.”
You may be wondering why New York isn’t maximizing zero-carbon power, building out wind, solar and hydropower while maintaining its nuclear reactors. More zero-carbon power means less natural gas. Less natural gas means less climate change.
Advocates and policymakers are trying to perform triage on environmental threats. With climate change, there is a high probability of a global disaster in the future. With nuclear power, there is low probability of a local disaster in the present. How we should balance these risks is the subject of vigorous debate.
In the years following the Three Mile Island disaster, the United States stopped building nuclear power plants, in part because new projects were met with fierce local opposition. This left the door open for carbon-intensive coal and natural gas. Now, New York is trying to wean its way off nuclear without repeating the same mistake.
Cuomo is weighing numerous risks.
The Indian Point power plant presents a range of risks. Last year, it was discovered that a leak at the power plant was turning groundwater radioactive, though reportedly not enough to threaten human health. Experts are most concerned about the possibility of nuclear meltdown or a terrorist attack. The people who planned the 9/11 attacks had initially floated targeting nuclear power plants in addition to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Indian Point offers a prime target for terrorists. The plant lies less than 40 miles from Midtown Manhattan.
What should replace Indian Point? Unlike wind turbines and solar panels, gas-fired power plants can provide energy on demand. But, gas-fired power plants generate carbon dioxide and other pollutants, putting vulnerable New Yorkers in harm’s way.
“Western Queens already produces a majority of the electricity for the New York metropolitan area and has the high asthma and emphysema rates to prove it,” New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D) said in a statement issued in response to the planned closure of Indian Point. “Make no mistake, I will vigorously fight any efforts to build new power plants in already over-saturated communities.”
Cuomo is putting his money on clean, resilient renewable energy, but New York can’t transform its energy grid overnight. It will take decades to run the state on wind, solar and hydropower alone, and that transition depends on smart public policy.
Renewables thrive where policies nurture their growth. That’s why New Jersey generates more solar power than Texas. And it’s why New York can shutter an important nuclear power plant and realistically expect to curb carbon emissions at the same time.
Just this week, Cuomo announced a new offshore wind project that will generate enough electricity to power more than 18,000 homes. And that’s the start. New York’s slate of climate policies could serve as a model for other states looking to wean off fossil fuels and nuclear energy both.