It’s Time to Shut Down New York’s Indian Point Nuclear Plant
Let’s work backwards: there is a nuclear power plant in upstate New York called Indian Point, and it needs to be shut down.
Nuclear reactors are notorious for their cooling systems; the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima meltdowns all occurred because of cooling system failures. Located in Buchanan in Westchester County, the Indian Point nuclear plant sits at the edge of the Hudson River. It draws in two billion gallons of river water every day in order to cool its reactors, discharging it back into the river eight degrees warmer. This has catastrophic consequences for the fish, eggs, larvae, and other aquatic life there. In fact, more than a billion of them die every year, said Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, an organization devoted to protecting the Hudson River and its tributaries (read more about this important organization here).
In a process called entrainment, fish and river life are sucked into the cooling intakes and annihilated. For decades conservationists have advocated for a closed cooling system, which has not come to fruition because it would require a financial investment that Entergy, the plant operator, is not willing to make. Rather, the company has proposed installing screens at the mouths of the intakes. Researchers have revealed that this is a far cry from a solution, not doing enough to protect the river’s biodiversity. In addition, it does not address the warm water discharge.
The quality of the reactor itself and its operation therein are sorely lacking as well. Security guards consistently fail mock attack tests, there is no viable evacuation plan for the surrounding region, and the reactor is deteriorating with age. The Indian Point closure debate is particularly hot right now because the site’s 40-year license is about to expire and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering granting them a 20-year renewal. The reactor provides a substantial percentage of the power used by New York City and the surrounding area; instead of shutting it down, why not repair and renovate?
In addition to closed cycling cooling, there are things that can be done in order to make Indian Point a bit safer, including fire safety measures and dry cask storage. These actions are insufficient; they do not change the underlying threats due to the reactor’s age, such as embrittlement, corrosion, and metal fatigue. Considering these problems are irreparable, why not tear it down and build a new reactor? Forty years ago, population geographies were different. Indian Point’s location is undesirable, due to its proximity to communities. Furthermore, several fault lines run through the area.
Nuclear energy is an efficient and clean means of powering our world. A controversial and provocative documentary called Pandora’s Promise (2013) makes a case for its desirability. Watch the trailer here:
One pound of uranium, the size of a person’s finger, yields as much energy as 5,000 barrels of oil. Nuclear energy does not pollute the air the way fossil fuels do. The amount of nuclear waste is overestimated: all the United States’ spent fuel rods would occupy a space no larger than a football field. Proposed “fourth generation reactors” are even more efficient and can recycle waste into another round of energy productivity. Renewables may be best for the long term sustainability of civilization, but right now, considering we continue to expand our energy demands, we need something realistic and nuclear is the way to go. These are some of the arguments the documentary presents, many of which are reasonable and worthy of consideration.
According to Gallay, Riverkeeper does not have a stance on nuclear power in general, but renewable energy and energy efficiency are two separate but interrelated things. We cannot argue that our needs for energy are increasing so drastically, while we waste 30 percent of the power we use. We can make many lifestyle changes so as to limit the growth of our demands. The idea of fourth generation nuclear plants is a fruitless quest for a Holy Grail. Rather, we should utilize the options we already have in hand. Declarations that carbon emissions in New York State would skyrocket if Indian Point were to close can be neutralized by a more wholehearted embrace of renewable energy systems. The economic infrastructure for them is more firmly established than ever, and market penetration is at an all time high. Furthermore, the sources of 650 of 2,000 potential megawatts are already in place and good to go.
These statistics are specifically in reference to New York State, but the conceptual framework is just as applicable to the United States at large and its national energy policy. Nuclear power has many advantages over fossil fuels, but it is not the ultimate answer. There are some notable outliers, such as France. Gabrielle Hecht’s The Radiance of France brilliantly chronicles the country’s national embrace of nuclear energy in the second half of the 20th century and the cultural values therein, as a means of assuaging the damage done by two world wars and as an attempt to reclaim its status as a member of the top of the geopolitical order. When the 21st century arrived, France had achieved energy independence and was even exporting its surplus to other countries. The general health of the environment and air there is notable; however, at the start of its program in the late 1940s, wind and solar power were barely in the conversation, and the state of technology did not allow for the viability of options such as geothermal energy. Just because France found success with its nuclear embrace half a century ago does not mean that the United States should pursue the same course now. We are fortunate enough to have at our fingertips a wider array of more preferable options.
It is time to make some substantial decisions regarding national energy policy and the directions in which we want to go. The Indian Point debate is a good starting point, and shutting it down would provide a great opportunity to set ourselves on a more renewable, and environmentally and socially responsible course.
Franklin R. Halprin (@FHalprin) holds an MA in History & Environmental Politics from Rutgers University where he studied human-environmental relationships and settlement patterns in the nineteenth century Southwest. His research focuses on the influences of social and cultural factors on the development of environmental policy. Contact Franklin at staff@LawStreetMedia.com.
Featured image courtesy of [Nick Fedele via Flickr]