RIP Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, 1962-2021

RIP Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, 1962-2021
A sign warning of radioactive materials is seen on a fence around a containment building at Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo: Seth Wenig, AP)

New York’s Indian Point Energy Centre, a nuclear power plant 57 kilometres from the heart of Times Square, shut down its last reactor on Friday.

The closure of Indian Point ends a decade-plus dispute to shutter the plant. New York will lose its single biggest source of carbon-free energy, which at least in the near term, could lead to an uptick in greenhouse gas emissions as the state turns to natural gas to replace it. Proponents, though, have argued it was time for an ageing plant with major local opposition to shut down. The closure will be a test case in a state with strong climate policies in place on how fast the transition to clean energy can happen while shutting down nuclear power, which is currently the biggest source of clean energy in the U.S.

Indian Point’s shutdown has been coming for years. In 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the plant’s operator, energy giant Entergy, had reached an agreement with the state to shut down the facility. The first of the site’s two functioning reactors shut down in April of last year. On Friday, the second shut down, marking the end of an era.

When fully operational, the plant had the capacity to generate 2,063 megawatts of electricity, making it the largest nuclear plant in the state. The power served the area and provided a quarter of New York City’s electricity — and it provided 1,000 jobs at its peak while filling local coffers. In comparison, data from the NYC mayor’s office and crunched by the Urban Green Council shows renewables are now responsible for only 7% of the city’s juice because it’s currently largely not connected via transmission lines to renewables hotspots in other parts of the state.

Advocates who have pushed for the closure, including Natural Resources Defence Council and Riverkeeper, have pointed to a woeful safety record, the plant’s potential as a terrorism target, and the risk a Fukushima-type disaster poses to millions living in the metro area. There’s another issue for Indian Point as well as other reactors around the U.S.: economics. Nuclear power is generally more expensive than renewables and natural gas.

“It’s almost like the Indy 500,” said Greg Jaczko, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Barack Obama and a lecturer at Princeton. “You’ve got three things coming to the finish line. You’ve got a renewables car, you’ve got a natural gas car, you’ve got a nuclear car. It looks like they’re all crossing the finish line at the same time. But in fact, the nuclear car has been lapped.”

Because the state’s power providers and utilities have had years to prepare for the closure, the odds of blackouts are basically nil. Yet much of the power that will backfill Indian Point’s missing megawatts will come from natural gas, at least in the near term.

“That’s an important slice of the pie that’s going away. The bad news is our grid is going to get dirtier before it gets cleaner,” said John Mandyck, the CEO of the Urban Green Council.

A 2018 analysis by the group found that New York’s emissions tied to buildings — the city’s biggest source of emissions — are likely to rise in the next year due to Indian Point’s closure and that this year “risks a major backslide” before emissions drop again and reach pre-closure levels later this decade. Another analysis by a coalition of pro-nuclear groups that advocated against the plant’s closure found a similar risk, with Indian Point’s closure leading to 4 million tons of what it called “avoidable” carbon dioxide emissions (the total doubles if you count carbon dioxide equivalent, a metric that includes methane). It points to one of the risks of closure, though there are ways to mitigate some of the increase, including ramping up energy efficiency through avenues like energy-saving water heaters and furnaces, better windows, and banning new gas hookups.

“Energy efficiency is always your first best friend because it’s the most effective, least expensive way to manage the grid. And for those that do it, you invest in yourself,” Mandyck said.

The state has an aggressive plan to transition to 70% renewable energy by 2030, though, and there are plenty of projects in the works to provide renewable power in the coming years to offset Indian Point’s loss. Among them are massive offshore wind farms that, once online, will have 4,300 megawatts of capacity or double what Indian Point was capable of generating. A NIMBY fight in the Hamptons is slowing down at least one project, but two of the larger projects are expected to be up and running by 2024.

Clean energy from outside the New York metro area, where it’s easier and cheaper to build wind and solar farms because real estate doesn’t go at Manhattan rates, could also play a role in powering the most populated parts of the state. The Champlain Hudson Power Express is a 544-kilometre buried high-voltage transmission line that will essentially be a highway for clean wind and hydro energy coming from eastern Canada to the city. The project’s developer said it will provide 1,000 to 1,250 megawatts or enough to power 1 million households, and it’s expected to be up and running by 2025. These projects are appealing because their cost is comparatively lower than keeping Indian Point running.

That could help the state meet its climate goals, though a few years of extra emissions is still bad news. That’s because every ton of carbon dioxide matters, as does methane tied with burning natural gas.

Emily Grubert, an engineer who studies energy systems at Georgia Tech, pointed to the closures of California’s San Onofre and Florida’s Crystal River power plants as ones that happened fast and left behind rough legacies. How New York deals with the closure of Indian Point, though, could provide a template for how to wind down an ageing nuclear power plant and not totally screw the climate.

“There are other plants in New York upstate that receive subsidies to help them continue to operate,” Jaczko said. “But at some point, subsidies are going to catch up to all these plants and the subsidies won’t be able to get big enough to to be able to make up for the challenges economically.

“One way or the other, our climate goals are going to have to be met by something other than nuclear,” he said.

As the world grapples with the role nuclear power should — or shouldn’t — play in efforts to combat climate change, the lessons will be an important one. Jaczko said when he was head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there were 104 licensed reactors in the U.S. but the number is down to 94 now and will dip even further as more plants come up for retirement.

“I’d much rather see us plan closures and maybe close things a little earlier than absolutely necessary with intention, rather than assume plants can keep running indefinitely and be surprised by a sudden, extremely disruptive closure,” Grubert said. “Could we run nukes for 80 to 100 years? Maybe, but we’ll need to replace them eventually. And I’d rather do that in a planned way. Hopefully, we’re getting better at making sure we replace things with the cleanest and most pro-social alternatives we can.”