Are NY utility customers willing to pay for Indian Point’s shutdown?

 

In September, the federal government is supposed to decide on renewing the license of one of Indian Point’s twin nukes. The long-anticipated decision will make headlines, but the reality is that the battle over the plants’ operation has already shifted to other fronts that will drag out the controversy for years more.

Gov. Cuomo wants to shut down Indian Point because he believes the plants, on the Hudson River in Westchester County, are dangerously close to New York City. He reasons that in a big disaster like the one that hit nuclear plants in Japan in 2011, there’s no way to evacuate millions of people from the city and surrounding area.

Right now, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is weighing 20-year extensions of Indian Point’s operating licenses — the license for Unit 2 expires next month, and the license for Unit 3 expires in December 2015. Even if the NRC puts off a final decision on the license renewals, Indian Point could keep running for years under its current licenses – as anticipated by Entergy, the plants’ owner. “We are permitted to operate Unit 2 beyond September even if a final NRC decision is not yet reached,” an Entergy spokesman says.

Indian Point opponents have raised countless issues about the plants’ safety, including claims that the twin nukes are open to terrorist attack, that radioactive material is leaking into nearby ground water, and that the plants are perched atop the intersection of two dangerous earthquake fault lines.

Cuomo’s worry is that one of the safety issues will lead to a disaster in New York similar to the March 2011 tsunami that hit Japan and crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants. The Fukushima plants are about 140 miles from Tokyo, and the crisis did not require the city’s evacuation. But a similar disaster at Indian Point has the potential to affect millions more people – Indian Point is just 35 miles from Midtown Manhattan.

Cuomo isn’t getting any support from the NRC over his fears. Most recently, in a study released June 24, the agency said earthquakes don’t pose much danger to the pools of spent nuclear fuel rods stored near Indian Point and other plants around the country.

In any case, the prospect of a Godzilla-scale disaster isn’t Cuomo’s main lever for shutting Indian Point.

Instead, it’s the damage the plants might be causing to fish. The state is challenging Indian Point’s application for a State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. In a nutshell, the state alleges that the water discharged from Indian Point’s cooling system is too warm for Hudson River sturgeon. The whole issue is mired in a Dickensian litigation that began a decade ago and shows no sign of ending anytime soon.

Cuomo also isn’t getting any help from the federal government on the fish issue. In a June 25 news release, the NRC said that the federal government has decided the plant’s impact on shortnose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon is “small.”

Clearly, the NRC’s positions on the fish and evacuation issues don’t bode well for plant opponents.

Another issue is that people in the electricity business worry that shutting down Indian Point will blow a big hole in New York’s power grid. Not only would the grid lose the electricity generated by the twin nukes, but the transmission lines around the plant would have to be reconfigured to bring in power from elsewhere.

Anticipating that Cuomo will have his way, the state Public Service Commission asked utility companies to come up with permanent solutions to the transmission problem. A New York Post story on some of the utility companies’ ideas is here, and the PSC file on the issue is here. The utility companies’ ideas are mainly improvements to the state’s power transmission system designed to get around the hole that would be created by closing Indian Point, and to bring in power from upstate and elsewhere. The fixes will be expensive – maybe more than $800 million.

Utilities have already dealt with these issues on a small scale, when Indian Point has shut down for maintenance or repairs. On July 28, on a summer day when the power grid was stressed a bit more than usual, Indian Point shut down so workers could fix some valves on the non-nuclear side of the plant. The shutdown boosted power flows from northern New Jersey into New York, and raised spot electricity prices in the region by 13 percent, according to this story from Bloomberg.

Unaddressed in the government regulation of the plants is whether Indian Point’s owners are selling electricity cheaply enough to suit the marketplace. Most electricity in New York is generated with natural gas, and natural gas prices have been plummeting. Some experts believe gas-generated electricity could squeeze older nukes like Indian Point out of business. Maybe in a few years, the litigation and argument over the plants will be rendered moot by simple economics.

In any case, with proper planning, Indian Point can be shut down without damaging the region’s electricity supply. The real issue is the cost, which would be spread over a period of years and among millions of utility customers in New York City and elsewhere. The puzzle for Cuomo and other officials is how New Yorkers weigh the price of shutting down the plants against the safety and environmental issues raised by Indian Point opponents.

Here’s a rundown of the state’s position on Indian Point’s relicensing. The page includes links to some of the papers in the proceedings before state administrative law judges.

 

About Bill Sanderson

I'm a New York-based journalist, and a former reporter at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, the Bergen Record in New Jersey, and the New York Post. My work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch.com and Politico New York. Twitter: @wpsanderson.
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