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Nuclear Power Debate Heats Up in NYCs Backyard: Relicensing Controversy Intensifies

By: Jared Anderson |

Anti-Nuke Activists Want Indian Point Closed (Spencer Platt | Getty Images)

The battle lines have been drawn for years, but the fight over nuclear power’s risks and benefits reached a new stage in New York this week where issues including public safety, reliability, the environment and ratepayer costs are being disputed.

The Indian Point nuclear power plant run by Entergy generates over 2,000 MW approximately 30 miles north of New York City. Supplying roughly 25% of New York City’s and Westchester County’s electricity, the plant’s operating licenses are due to expire within the next few years and the federal hearings are drawing Indian Point’s proponents and critics into stark relief.

The plant is located in Buchanan about 35 miles north of Manhattan on the east side of the Hudson River. The argument in favor of closing the plant stems primarily from public health concerns.

“The central concern is the plant has been there for forty years and is aging in a number of ways,” Kit Kennedy, Senior Council for the Natural Resources Defense Council told AOL Energy. “The plant was poorly sited to begin with given the densely populated area – the plant would never be approved today,” she said.

The NRDC maintains extreme weather events like storms, flooding and earthquakes that occur fairly regularly in the area pose sufficient risk for the plant to be shut down. New York State also takes this view and Governor Cuomo advocates Indian Point’s closure.

What is the Solution?

But nuclear power plants generate lots of electricity – around two to four times as much as a standard natural gas-fired or coal-fired plant – so how do you replace over 2,000 MW?

That is the thrust of a major study commissioned by the NRDC and Riverkeeper that contends Indian Point’s power can easily be replaced with renewable energy and energy efficiency measures.

Others strongly disagree, however, claiming Indian Point is a reliable source of inexpensive power that would be technically difficult and costly to replace.

Jonathan Lesser, President of Continental Economics and author of a Manhattan Institute for Policy Research report on Indian Point and Robert Bryce, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow wrote in a recent op-ed that replacing the plant would be expensive and intermittent power sources like wind and solar could jeopardize grid reliability and cost customers more money.

They estimate closing the plant could boost the average residential customer’s electricity bill by an additional $100 per year, with a typical small business paying about $1,000 more.

The NRDC/Riverkeeper report – produced by consultants Synapse Energy Economics – calculates much lower cost increases closer to $1 per month for the average customer. The report finds a combination of new transmission lines will draw in power, including renewables, from places like New Jersey and Canada, and that coupled with energy efficiency programs can replace the power that Indian Point’s closure would take offline.

A new transmission line from New Jersey will be completed in 2013 and supply the equivalent of 25% of Indian Point’s generating capacity, said Kennedy.

Lesser is more skeptical, pointing out that replacing the nuclear plant’s capacity would require building new power plants – presumably natural gas – or constructing additional transmission lines and/or natural gas pipelines that would be expensive and difficult to site in New York City and its northern suburbs.

Lesser and Bryce also mention problematic regional geology with shallow bedrock making underground gas pipeline construction considerably more expensive – roughly $40 million per mile for a recent Spectra Energy pipeline expansion into lower Manhattan. Lesser also told AOL Energy that natural gas pipeline construction – and new transmission lines – are projects often opposed by the environmental community, particularly when the transported gas is produced with the aid of hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

The degree to which New York State’s total power generating capacity surplus can be used to help replace Indian Point’s power output has become another point of disagreement between the two sides. The NRDC report contends the state has a capacity surplus that will persist until at least 2020, which provides ample time for the market and the state to replace Indian Point’s output.

Lesser contends that while this analysis includes several new generators scheduled to come online in the next few years – much of which is natural gas – it fails to account for existing generator retirements. Additionally, the capital investment required to build additional transmission to bring power from distant generating sources to end users in southeast New York is significant and would also likely increase ratepayers’ bills, he said.

The transmission lines are financed by transmission owners, which is a private endeavor, said Kennedy.

These issues will not be settled this week. In fact, both sides agree that it will likely be years before a final decision on Indian Point’s future is made as the legal process grinds on with appeals and anticipated lawsuits. This is not necessarily a bad thing according to Kennedy because, “it gives the state time to put policies in place needed to transition to safer and cleaner energy.”