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NY plant at heart of nuclear power battle

By: Shannon Bond |

Forty miles north of New York City, the Indian Point nuclear power plant has become the latest battleground in the debate over nuclear safety in the US.

Critics including Andrew Cuomo, New York governor, say the site is old, unsafe and a ripe target for terrorists. Defenders warn that shuttering the plant would cost the state billions, raise the city’s already high energy prices and lead to sweeping job losses.

Safety concerns are being showcased at a hearing on Monday as the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers whether to renew the plant’s licences for another two decades. The original 40-year licences are set to expire in 2013 and 2015.

Opponents say the risks of continuing to operate the ageing plant are too great and shutting it down will not disrupt New York’s energy grid. The 2,000-megawatt plant supplies more than a quarter of the city’s electricity.

“It simply makes no sense to keep operating 40-year old reactors that are vulnerable to fire, earthquake, outside attack and a host of other potential disasters,” said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper, an environmental group that is challenging the re-licensing. “Even if you closed it today there would be no [energy] shortage until 2020 and there’s so much new power in the pipeline that it would be replaced.”

Industry advocates disagree. “Indian Point is very valuable in terms of ensuring a stable voltage level across the transmission grid and ensuring a reliable flow of electricity,” said Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy, which owns the plant. He said security and back-up measures have been improved at the site since the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility last year prompted a reassessment of seismic risk at the 104 US plants.

The Japanese crisis raised particular fears over Indian Point, which sits near two active faults.

“This plant could never be built by today’s safety standards,” Mr Kennedy said.

But Mr Steets said: “We have seismic protections that protect the plant from an earthquake twice the magnitude of the strongest ever recorded [there].”

New York state is among the parties opposing new licences, citing concerns over the cost of exposure to radioactivity in case of an accident and possible corrosion or leaks in piping that could contaminate the nearby Hudson River.

Mr Cuomo has advocated closing Indian Point since before his election as governor in 2010. During the 2011 post-Fukushima safety review, he said a proposed 50-mile radius evacuation – which would include more than 20m people in New York City and much of its suburbs – is not “a feasible concept”.

The hearing has also fuelled debate over the economic impact of closing Indian Point.

Last month, a study from the Manhattan Institute, a fiscally conservative think-tank, concluded closing the site would raise prices for consumers who already pay well above the national average.

Switching to alternative sources would raise the average New Yorker’s energy bill by $76 to $112 a year, the report said, as well as adding to costs for the city’s public transit agency.

All told, closing the plant would increase average electricity costs statewide by up to $2.2bn, reduce overall economic output by up to $2.7bn and eliminate 26,000 to 40,000 jobs a year, the study found.

Mr Steets warned of higher energy prices “in a state that already has high electricity costs and which any business will tell you could be a determining factor in locating there”.

Environmentalists responded with their own study last week that said the power produced at Indian Point could be replaced by improved energy efficiency and renewable resources at a limited cost to consumers.

The report, commissioned by Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council, found New York has enough capacity to withstand the loss of output from Indian Point until 2020, at which point proposed investments to boost efficiency and increase solar and wind production would make up for it. That would add about 1 per cent a year to electricity bills, or $12 a year for the average residential customer, the study said.