Should Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant Be Shut Down?

Sarah Laskow | March 28th, 2011

The Indian Point Nuclear Energy Center

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has long opposed the nuclear power plant at Indian Point and has been speaking since the Japanese nuclear crisis about the possibility of closing it for good. For New Yorkers who agree that the nuclear power plant at Indian Point should cease operations, there is a simple way to further that goal: stop buying the plant’s electricity.

Most residents of New York City are Con Edison customers, and Con Edison depends on Indian Point for power. Con Edison, though, is primarily a transmission company. It buys the electricity and brings it to consumers. Those who depend on Con Edison to keep their lights on can choose to accept the energy mix (and the price) that the company offers. But they also have the option of buying their power elsewhere and having Con Edison deliver it.

Which means that it’s possible for an individual to cut ties with Indian Point now. NYPIRG has put together a list of alternative energy options: in the New York City area, consumers can choose to buy energy generated from wind and hydropower. These options are a bit more pricey: They cost an additional one or two cents per kilowatt-hour, and plans that contain 100% wind power are more expensive than those that draw from a mix of renewable sources. Over the course of a year, these additional costs total about $50 to $100 extra dollars for the average customer.

As a state, New York has been cementing its commitment to these alternative energy resources: The state’s current goal is to have 30% of electricity comes from renewable sources by 2015. According to the latest figures available from the New York ISO, which helps run and monitor the state’s electricity system, 22% of all electricity generated in the state comes from renewable resources. The vast majority of that (19% of all generation) comes from hydropower.

Right now, the majority of Indian Point’s spent fuel is stored in the same sort of cooling tanks that proved a problem at Fukushima. If the plant was decommissioned, the fuel would likely be stored differently, in dry casks.

But while the state — and the city — depend heavily on nuclear power for electricity, Con Edison is decreasing the amount of power it is contracted to buy from Indian Point over the next few years, from 1000 megawatts in 2009, to 850 MW in 2010, to 350 MW this year and next. The company still says, however, that approximately 30% of the power it delivers to New York and Westchester County comes from the plant. And in New York State as a whole, 32% of electricity generated relies on nuclear power, according to NYISO. (There are four other reactors in the state, the majority of them clustered outside of Oswego, NY, near Lake Ontario.)

Shutting down Indian Point would mean finding a different source for that portion of the electricity New Yorkers use. The NYISO, in a report published near the close of 2010, wrote that if Indian Point were to close, it would create reliability problems for the New York area electricity grid — in other words, the likelihood of blackouts and brownouts occurring would exceed acceptable limits.

Cuomo’s office reiterated last week that the governor believes the state will be able to find enough new sources to make up the gap.

But where will it come from? Although the thought of a nuclear meltdown 20 miles from New York City can be unnerving, nuclear does have certain advantages over other fuel sources for electricity generation. New York City’s fuel mix produces emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide significantly lower than the national average. Carbon dioxide emissions, for instance, are 54% of the national average emissions rate. The better carbon emissions rates are one of the reasons that national leaders, including President Obama, have been staunch nuclear supporters.

In New York, the alternatives to nuclear come with their own baggage. Wind power only accounts for a tiny slice of the state’s electricity, and new wind projects cannot account for the amount of electricity Indian Point generates. And wind power doesn’t necessarily account for most new growth in this sector, either. “Currently most of the larger generators coming online are high efficiency combined cycle natural gas generators,” Ken Klapp, a spokesman for NYISO, told State Room. Closing Indian Point could mean relying more heavily on natural gas, extracted by controversial hydrofracking techniques.

Even if the state does succeed in finding replacement sources for Indian Point, closing Indian Point won’t mean that New York City is immediately safe from the hazards of nearby nuclear materials. The process of decommissioning a nuclear plant takes years. Indian Point hosts three nuclear reactors; one is already inactive, but Entergy, which owns all three, has delayed decommissioning it until a second reactor ceases operations.

Decommissioning doesn’t necessarily require Entergy to move the nuclear materials left over from the generation process from the decommissioned site. There’s still no national facility for storing used nuclear material, and it’s common for nuclear materials to remain on the site of a decommissioned plant.

The federal government requires companies that own nuclear reactors to set aside funds to decommission their plants and draft a plan to decommission them, so in theory, Entergy should be prepared to shut down the plant, should its bid to renew the reactors’ licenses fail. In 2009, however, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission discovered that Entergy’s fund for decommissioning one Indian Point reactor fell short. In 2010, the company and the NRC agreed that Entergy could store nuclear materials onsite until 2063, under conditions that safely allow the radioactivity to decay.

Right now, the majority of Indian Point’s spent fuel is stored in the same sort of cooling tanks that proved a problem at Fukushima. If the plant was decommissioned, the fuel would likely be stored differently, in dry casks. In this storage method, the spent fuel is placed in steel casks, which are in turn stored in ventilated concrete capsules. Since 2008, Entergy has stored some of its spent fuel in dry casks, which the NRC says would keep the materials safe during an earthquake.

“They’re designed to not move during earthquake activity,” Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the NRC, said. “Unlike the spent fuel pools, they don’t use water, pumps or valves. They don’t use electricity. They’re very self-sufficient.”