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Has Time Run Out to Replace Indian Point's Nuclear Power?

There are 'very limited options' for new sources of generation before Indian Point 2's operating license expires in 2013, says state offical

By Alice Kenny, SolveClimate News

Jul 8, 2011
Indian Point nuclear plant

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 two. (Read part one.)

Renewed backlash against New York's Indian Point nuclear plant in the wake of Japan's disaster has forced politicians and energy experts in the state to again confront tough questions about how to permanently replace the facility's electricity.

Now, with the plant up for relicensing, some observers warn that time may have run out for a well-managed and gradual shutdown of the complex, located just 24 miles from America's most populous city.

The 40-year licenses for Indian Point's working reactors, units 2 and 3, are set to expire in 2013 and 2015. The plant's owner, Entergy Corp., is awaiting final word from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on its applications for 20-year renewals.

The complex fills a significant portion of the downstate area's energy needs, generating about 2,160 megawatts of clean-burning electricity — enough to power 3.2 million households or 25 percent of New York City and Westchester County's combined electrical needs. 

Three options to replace Indian Point stand out. One, local fossil fuel sources such as natural gas could generate more electricity. Two, excess hydroelectric power or wind power generated upstate or in Canada could be transported downstate. And three, consumers could drastically cut their electricity use.

All appear relatively simple and, together, offer promise. But closer inspection shows there is a great deal of complexity involved.

Switching to replacement power generation in New York City, for instance, would be costlier and dirtier than nuclear power at a time of economic distress for the nation, and when top climate experts agree that carbon emissions must be reduced.

And, while New York's excess energy flow would be enough to generate two Indian Point's worth of electricity, current transmission wires are insufficient to carry the megawatts downstate.

"There are no easy answers," said Lindsay Audin, president of Energywiz, a Croton on Hudson, N.Y.-based energy consulting firm, at a recent meeting convened near Indian Point to brainstorm ways to shutter the plant.

Is it Too Late to Prevent a Power Disruption?

For at least one month a year, New York City gets no power from one of the two Indian Point reactors when they are taken offline for routine maintenance.

Some say this is evidence that the city already has substitute power for Indian Point for the long term — although many experts dispute this. Further, various studies commissioned to examine how to replace Indian Point's power permanently suggest that preparations should have begun years ago. 

Most significant among these was the 104–page report commissioned by the Department of Energy at the request of Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and published by the National Academies in 2006.

The study, "Alternatives to the Indian Point Energy Center for Meeting New York Electric Power Needs," cost over $1 million and took more than a year to complete. It included input from dozens of scientists, politicians and environmentalists, along with professionals from Indian Point, Con Edison and General Electric.  

The report's main conclusion was that if "sufficient resources were added," then "Indian Point units could be retired at the end of their current operating licenses [2013 and 2015] without causing a major disruption of power capacity."

To achieve this, the authors said the downstate region, which includes New York City, Long Island and nearby suburbs, would need 5,000 to 5,500 megawatts in new resources by 2015 — half of that from natural gas plants — on top of new transmission and other actions. They based this figure on estimates that 3,300 additional megawatts of power would be needed "even if Indian Point continues to operate."

"The report does not propose a 'single solution' to the replacement of Indian Point," the authors wrote. A replacement strategy "would most likely consist of a portfolio of approaches ... including investments in energy efficiency, transmission and new generation."

Despite the time, money and expertise put into completing the study, advocates say its recommendations have been ignored, leaving New York City nearly as dependent on Indian Point as it was in 2006.

Testifying before the State Senate Standing Committee on Energy in May, Stephen Whitley, president of the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), which oversees the state's power markets and distribution, said New York is not yet prepared for a shutdown.

"The immediate shutdown of Indian Point without replacement resources could have serious electric reliability consequences ... including rolling blackouts," he told them. "The economic costs ... can total billions of dollars a day."

Fossil Fuel Capacity Available

For more than half of the last century, New York City relied on power generated outside the city to meet most of its electrical needs.

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