Indian Point (photo: the governor's office)
New York’s recently-passed Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act has been described as the boldest climate legislation in the nation. It sets demanding milestones for reducing carbon emissions, starting with the 2030 goal that New York state should, by then, derive 70% of its electricity from renewable sources (solar, wind, and waterpower). By 2040, it should derive all of its electricity from “clean” sources, and it should be carbon-neutral in all its uses of energy by 2050.
These goals pose daunting challenges, but within two years the challenge will become even greater when the Indian Point nuclear plant, 36 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, is scheduled to shut down. Governor Cuomo agreed to its closure, even though it is functioning safely and economically, because of fears of a nuclear accident raised by the community around the site. When he agreed to the closure, he made a commitment it would not result in any new carbon emissions. Nevertheless, the operator of New York’s electric grid has made clear that three natural gas-powered generating plants will be fired up to replace the carbon-free electricity flowing from Indian Point. These replacement plants will release 7 million metric tons of greenhouse gases for each year thereafter. The increased greenhouse gas emissions will undermine the new climate law before it even gets started, and the smaller capacity of the gas plants may well lead to shortages of electric power in the coming years.
We have shown elsewhere that attempting to meet the new law’s 2030 goal with only renewable sources would cost more than $100 billion and is completely impractical. However, the language of the new climate law ignores the contribution that nuclear power, which emits no carbon dioxide, can make toward a carbon-free future. Indeed, if Indian Point and other nuclear plants, which already provide nearly a third of New York’s electricity, are kept running, and the governor’s planned expansion of offshore wind takes place, a 2030 goal of 70% carbon-free electricity will be met without any further expenditure.
There is no need to shut down Indian Point. This facility, which produces a quarter of the New York City Metro region’s electricity, is safe and reliable and can keep going for decades more. The current closure agreement does allow the plant, if necessary, to continue operating through 2024 and 2025. While the current operator, the Entergy Corp., is giving up control of the plant, the New York Power Authority could take it over and continue operating it, as it did safely and efficiently for many years before Entergy came into the picture. In fact, Indian Point should remain operational until such time as new, carbon-free resources can replace it. That way, it can continue to help meet the state’s emission reduction goals.
We recognize that including nuclear energy, along with carbon-free renewable energy sources, in meeting our climate goals will require a major re-evaluation of risk by groups deeply invested in opposing nuclear power. These groups, some of which campaigned for the closure of Indian Point, are concerned that nuclear reactors will suffer accidents that could have catastrophic consequences. In fact, as one of us has explained in a brief guide, this is not possible. Nuclear reactor accidents have led to very few deaths – 28 plant workers and firefighters perished at Chernobyl, along with an estimated 60 deaths from thyroid cancer worldwide -- and there were zero fatalities from the Three Mile Island and Fukushima events. Hundreds of thousands have already suffered from the effects of climate change, and millions more are likely to suffer if climate change proceeds as it is on course now.
Keeping Indian Point and other nuclear plants operating while the state builds new, even safer nuclear facilities and installs modest amounts of renewable resources offers the most practical, achievable path for New York to meet its emission goals and offer our children and grandchildren a realistic chance for a carbon-free, stable future.
Leonard Rodberg is a physicist who taught climate change and public policy at Queens College/CUNY until his retirement in 2017. Herschel Specter is an engineer who focused on nuclear safety issues in many positions, including at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency.