Editor's Note: In this three-part series, SolveClimate News examines the feasibility of closing the Indian Point nuclear facility in Buchanan, N.Y. The plant, now up for relicensing, faces demands for a shutdown by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and many environmental groups. This is part one.
The Indian Point nuclear power complex in Westchester County, New York, supplies up to one-fourth of all the electricity used by New York City, America's biggest city.
Now — at a time of rapidly increasing scrutiny on the entire nuclear industry — the nearly 40-year-old Indian Point is seeking federal approval to operate its reactors for 20 more years. Their relicensing is far from cast in stone.
A sharp backlash following Japan's Fukushima disaster, coupled with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's heightened criticism, is adding momentum to efforts to close the plant. Across the state, the credibility of the facility's long-standing tagline — "safe, secure, vital" — is in question perhaps like never before.
While opponents have long challenged the plant's claims of being safe and secure, many are now also wondering how truly vital the reactors are to keeping the Big Apple's lights on.
Expert opinion on this question is mixed. But data shows that — depending on the time of year — the city of 8.2 million residents may not be as nuclear-dependent as some may think and others may wish.
Ever since the blackout of 1965 trapped thousands of New Yorkers in subways and elevators, the city mandates that it must be able to provide 80 percent of its power with generators located within its 304 square miles. That means the city needn't rely on outside sources to provide any more than 20 percent of its electricity — although legally it is allowed to do so.
Indian Point, located in Buchanan, N.Y., 24 miles from the city's northern border in the Bronx, at times provides far less than that.
Periodically, New York City even handles its electrical needs without Indian Point, according to Ken Klapp, a spokesperson for the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), which oversees the state's power markets and distribution.
At a minimum, he said, the two nuclear units take turns shutting down for refueling for about one month during the off-peak spring season when energy use is low, removing roughly 1,000 megawatts from the grid.
But what would happen if the nuclear plant suddenly went dark this summer, as air conditioners run around the clock? Are existing plans designed to keep the city's lights on sufficient?
'Safety Margin is Eroded'
Within New York City's five boroughs, single-fuel natural gas plants and dual-fuel plants that mainly use gas and some oil make up 95 percent of the city's generating capacity, according to NYISO.
Fossil-fuel peaking stations — small-scale generators that can be expensive and dirty to run — kick on during times of peak demand.
Electricity generated from these and other generating systems, including some wind and solar power units, get pooled together on an electrical grid. Lindsay Audin, a certified energy manager and president of Energywiz, Inc., a Croton on Hudson, N.Y.-based consulting firm, said it's "like a lake fed from many sources" that gets streamed out to customers.
NYISO requires what they call a "reliability standard," a safety margin that ensures there is always more backup electricity available than New York City typically uses. During times of peak electrical usage, such as the current summer months, however, this safety margin can disappear, making Indian Point's power supply even more critical.
"The safety margin is eroded," said James M. Van Nostrand, executive director of the White Plains, N.Y.-based Pace Energy and Climate Center. "From an energy planning perspective, I have a hard time seeing how we would replace [Indian Point's electricity] in the downstate region."
Routine Outages, Who Knew?
In most of New York State, however, electrical supply from various generating sources far outstrips demand, according to NYISO calculations. For this reason, planned outages have little effect on consumers. Indian Point requires shutdowns for routine maintenance and refueling, similar to most electrical generating systems.
The shutdowns are like "racecar pit stops," explained Daniel Carey, a member of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 21, which has fitted pipes at Indian Point since 1985. Laborers, carpenters, electricians and boilermakers — close to 700 people in all — race around the plant, he told SolveClimate News, making repairs so that residents relying on the plant's electricity are unaware when the plant goes offline.
Entergy Corp., the nuclear plant's owner, plans maintenance outages for its nuclear generators, units 2 and 3, during times when electricity use is low, Jerry Nappi, a spokesperson for Indian Point, told SolveClimate News.
For instance, the 1,080-megawatt unit 3 was shut down on March 17 for routine repairs. Although the unit did not go back online for nearly a month, virtually no ratepayers were aware of it, because it caused no electrical power outages. Similarly, Indian Point 2, with its 1,067 megawatts of electricity, was shut for routine maintenance on May 20 and remained closed for several weeks.
In addition to having uninterrupted electricity during these outages, consumers typically see no change in their electricity bills.