Inside Clean Energy: Indian Point Nuclear Plant Reaches a Contentious End

Few topics divide clean energy advocates as much as the role of nuclear power.

The Indian Point nuclear power plant is seen March 18, 2011 in Buchanan, New York. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Indian Point nuclear power plant is seen March 18, 2011 in Buchanan, New York. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

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At 11 p.m. on April 30, employees shut down the nuclear reactor at Indian Point Energy Center Unit 3, marking the end of a power plant that has been an essential part of New York City’s energy supply since the 1960s.

The plant’s closing has inspired elation and regret, intensifying a longtime dispute among environmental advocates about the role nuclear power should play in the transition to clean energy and what steps the government should take to preserve existing nuclear plants.

Environmental groups have been working to close Indian Point for decades, arguing that the plant should never have been built so close to New York City—it is located just 40 miles from the Empire State Building—and citing a long list of concerns, including damaged bolts near the reactor core and a cooling system that was killing fish and plants in the Hudson River.

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But some environmental advocates and energy policy researchers see the closing of Indian Point as a mistake because of the loss of a major source of carbon-free power and the likelihood that much of that void will be filled with electricity from natural gas, at least in the near future. They say that New York State has now made it much more difficult to meet its goal, adopted two years ago, to get to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040.

Some of the opposition to the plant’s closing has been apparent on social media, including a pile-on when the Natural Resources Defense Council tweeted about supporting the closure. Hundreds of people responded, calling the organization “clueless” and worse.

I asked Kit Kennedy, senior director of the climate and clean energy program for NRDC, how she viewed the intensity of reaction. 

“What’s going on here is two discussions get conflated,” she said. “One is the history around Indian Point and the specific and unique risks. And the other is the future of nuclear power in the United States. To me those are very distinct issues, but some view them as one and the same.”

What Powers New York State

Kennedy wrote a blog post last week about why her organization has long supported the closing of Indian Point and why she thinks New York State is well-positioned to meet its clean energy goals, even without the plant.

Among the people lamenting the plant’s closing is Alex Gilbert, an energy systems researcher who is the project manager for the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, a think tank.

“For me it’s a mixture of disappointment and resignation,” he said.

Gilbert views the closing of Indian Point as part of a broader trend of large nuclear power plants closing, including Diablo Canyon in California, which is scheduled to shut down its reactors in 2024 and 2025. At the same time, almost no nuclear plants are being built in the United States, mainly because of concerns about high costs. An exception is Southern Company’s Vogtle Plant Unit 3 and Unit 4 in Georgia, which may come online this year and in 2022, respectively, after many delays and cost overruns.

Gilbert said it makes little sense to shut down major sources of carbon-free electricity, considering the need to cut carbon emissions as much as possible as soon as possible. Nuclear power was 20 percent of the country’s electricity last year, about the same share as renewable energy.

Indian Point was a major supplier of New York State’s electricity market. In 2019, when the plant had two reactors running, it provided enough electricity to serve more than 2 million homes and accounted for 13 percent of the state’s electricity generation.

“If (New York State) had prepared and planned to replace Indian Point with clean energy from the day it closed, that would be great,” Gilbert said. “The problem is that they didn’t.”

New York's Nuclear Power Plants

One result is that natural gas is gaining market share in New York State. The closing of Indian Point Unit 3 last week followed the closing of Unit 2 a year ago. New York State went from getting 36 percent of its electricity from natural gas in 2019, to 40 percent natural gas in 2020. Wind, solar and battery storage are growing, but not yet fast enough to make up for the loss of the nuclear plant.

NRDC’s Kennedy responded to the concerns about natural gas by noting that the fuel’s 2020 market share, while up from 2019, was down from 2016, and has fluctuated over the years for various reasons.

Indian Point was closed under the terms of a 2017 agreement between the plant’s owner, Entergy, and the state government and environmental groups. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state officials had been opposing renewal of the plant’s federal license to operate.

Entergy, which is based in New Orleans, was willing to close Indian Point because the plant was not profitable enough. Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, said in 2017 that cheap natural gas from the Marcellus Shale had driven down wholesale electricity prices, which reduced Indian Point’s income.

New York State officials had major concerns about Indian Point, but they also were taking steps to preserve the jobs and energy generation of the other three nuclear power plants in the state. In 2016, the state government created a new system of subsidies for the nuclear plants that were struggling the most financially, a group that didn’t include Indian Point, which was modestly profitable. The subsidies have helped to keep those plants running.

So I don’t think it’s fair to say New York’s leaders are anti-nuclear. It would be more accurate to say that they are anti-Indian Point.

But it is difficult to dispute the idea that, in aggregate, the transition to 100 percent carbon-free electricity gets more challenging every time a source of carbon-free power goes dark.


Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:

Most of the Largest Coal Plants Do Not Have Firm Retirement Dates: American Electric Power said last month that it will completely close the Rockport coal-fired power plant in Indiana in 2028, one of the only coal plants among the 10 largest in the country to receive a firm retirement date. I wrote on Monday about Rockport and the other super-size plants, and what is stopping some of them from getting retirement dates despite environmental concerns. Some of the information in that story comes from a new report from Energy Innovation, released on Wednesday, that finds that 80 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants cost more to operate than wind and solar in the same regions. The report builds on previous research from the think tank, finding that the financial competitiveness for coal-fired power continues to deteriorate for most plants.

Backlash Greets Washington State Wind-Solar Project: A $1.7 billion plan to build utility-scale wind and solar in south-central Washington State is leading to fierce debate, as Hal Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. Some rural landowners see an opportunity to increase their incomes, while some of their neighbors and the residents of nearby cities have concerns about how wind and solar will change the region’s look and feel.

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Google Fleshes Out 24/7 Clean Energy Plans in Virginia: Google continues its work to implement a plan outlined last year to get to 24/7 clean energy throughout its global operations. Google and the energy company AES said this week that they have signed an agreement for AES to supply electricity to three data centers in Virginia. AES will develop 500 megawatts of renewable energy and storage resources so that the data centers will be able to operate without using fossil fuels. The Virginia deal, as reported by Iulia Gheorghiu of Utility Dive, helps to show what Google will need to do to make its 24/7 plan a reality.

Supply Chain Problems Hit Solar Industry: SolarEdge Technologies, a maker of components for the solar industry, saw its share price fall by 16 percent on Wednesday, in part because of concerns about the ability of solar companies to get the materials they need. Brian Eckhouse reports for Bloomberg Green about how supply concerns are hitting several companies in the solar industry, leading to smaller profit margins, because companies may need to pay more for materials and shipping. The issues hitting the solar industry are similar to what other industries are facing, as demand has grown to outstrip supply for things like glass and electronic components.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.