The debate over the future of the Indian Point nuclear power plant can seem like a huge lose-lose proposition.
Shut down the plant’s two units, and the region could face rolling blackouts, double-digit rate hikes and new pollution-
belching power plants to replace the 2,000 megawatts lost from the grid.
But open or closed, Indian Point is unlikely to fall into either worst-case scenario, presenting policymakers instead with a calculation of each option’s actual risks and benefits and the most acceptable trade-offs.
“Most discussions of Indian Point are strongly in one direction or the other,” said Michael Gerrard, an environmental law professor at Columbia University who will moderate a panel about the plant next month. “There’s a lot of polarization on the issue.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the final say over renewing the two reactors’ licenses, which expire in 2013 and 2015, respectively, though Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been pushing to shut them down and is demanding that their owner, Entergy, install cooling towers that could be prohibitively expensive.
The arguments in favor of shutting it down center on safety, an issue that flared up after the nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant a year ago.
Environmentalists say low-level radiation leaks, the plant’s location near underground fault lines, countless safety-inspection exemptions and the lack of a viable evacuation plan provide further reasons to shutter the plant.
But the plant has had the highest safety ratings the past six years, Entergy points out, and passed key safety assessments performed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its license renewal application.
If the plant is shut down, however, the critical questions would then be about reliability, cost and environmental impact.
Indian Point electricity meets about 30 percent of New York City’s demand; the plant is a reliable source of low-greenhouse-gas electricity and generates almost no air pollution of any kind. It’s also fairly inexpensive to run, since the capital costs were amortized long ago.
The New York Independent System Operator, or ISO, which operates the state’s transmission lines and conducts studies of the reliability of the entire system, has said new energy sources would have to be in place to provide 1,200 new megawatts by 2016.
“Failure to do so would have serious reliability consequences, including the possibility of rolling customer blackouts,” Rick Gonzalez, CEO of the ISO, said at an Assembly hearing last month.
Gonzalez said that new power plants and efforts to curtail demand would likely be the potential solutions in the next three to five years, as well as limited transmission upgrades.
The governor this year called for the creation of a transmission highway to bring ample upstate energy to the downstate area, but stringing hundreds of miles of new power lines would likely take longer than building new power plants.
Other options exist, but each has drawbacks: Renewable power sources such as wind and solar are expensive, natural gas requires new supply and generators, and nobody wants more coal.
But Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, who chairs the Energy Committee, said testimony at his hearing last month convinced him that Indian Point is not essential to New York’s energy future, from both environmental and reliability perspectives.
“The new generation could be the retrofitting of an existing facility, the repowering of an existing facility to be larger and using a cleaner fuel than is currently used,” Cahill said.
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