In mid-1986, New York Governor Mario Cuomo was asked about the future of nuclear power. The future of nuclear power, he replied, “is Chernobyl.” He understood that nuclear power is dangerous, and he understood that it could never become safe enough to use. He made good on that statement too: he decided to prevent the Shoreham reactor on Long Island, for which construction was basically completed and it had even been tested at very low power, from ever operating.
While he made a futile attempt at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to get them to deny a license to Shoreham, on the grounds that Long Island could never be evacuated in the event of a nuclear meltdown, he also created the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) and made the much-criticized local utility LILCO an offer it couldn’t refuse: the Authority bought Shoreham for a dollar and agreed to cover the decommissioning costs. The story is much longer and more complex than that, of course; for those who want to know more, Karl Grossman’s book Power Crazy covers the entire Shoreham saga, a boondoggle from the beginning whose bizarre story seems almost unimaginable today.
But while Cuomo stopped Shoreham, he didn’t go after Indian Point in the same way. It’s true that he had less leverage there–those reactors already were built and operating–but if he could create LIPA out of thin air, why not another authority in Indian Point’s region? After all, even Cuomo didn’t believe the Indian Point area, so close to New York City, could be evacuated either.
Imagine, by the way, trying to evacuate that area during an event like last week’s blizzard.
And Gov. Mario Cuomo said virtually nothing about New York’s upstate nuclear reactors, even though, if the future of nuclear power was Chernobyl, that would seem to apply everywhere, not just on Long Island.
A generation later, Mario Cuomo’s son Andrew is now Governor Cuomo. And this Gov. Cuomo has made clear he wants Indian Point closed. It’s unsafe, he says, and the area cannot be evacuated. And this Gov. Cuomo is, by any honest assessment, doing just about everything a Governor can do to close those reactors.
On those grounds, Gov. Andrew Cuomo would be a hero to the clean energy movement.
And there’s more. Gov. Andrew Cuomo also wants to end the use of coal in the state, and he is insisting on a clean energy plan that New York attain 30% of its electricity from renewables by 2020, less than five years from now, and 50% renewables by 2030. For a large, industrial state, that is by any measure an aggressive plan.
But where Gov. Mario Cuomo essentially ignored New York’s upstate reactors, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has embarked on a new crusade–not to close them, but to ensure they continue operating at any cost. And that cost, which is part of a new Clean Energy Standard proposal released this week by the staff of New York’s Public Service Commission, could become very high.
Two upstate reactors, Ginna and Fitzpatrick, announced last year that they will be closing within the next year or two because they are no longer economically competitive in New York’s marketplace. Gov. Cuomo seems determined to try to reverse those decisions, and to provide extra protection–in the form of subsidies from already burdened New York ratepayers–to nuclear power just because, well, because it’s nuclear. Even though he still wants to close Indian Point.
Basically, under the proposal, nuclear power would be defined as “clean” and just as utilities would be required to provide the 30% and 50% renewable power, they would be required to provide a percentage of nuclear power too–even if it is more expensive than more renewables. The percentage would begin at 4.6% in 2017, rising to 6.2% in 2018, 9.4% in 2019 and 15.7% in 2020. For those levels to be met, Ginna and Fitzpatrick would not be able to close if Indian Point were to close.
Never mind that Entergy already has told the Governor that it is too late to save Fitzpatrick; they’re going to close it anyway. And never mind that Entergy is determined to keep Indian Point open. If they’re successful–and they may well be–then New Yorkers could end up subsidizing Indian Point too, even though it is an economic powerhouse.
What is curious, and schizophrenic, is both Cuomos’ seeming lack of concern for upstate residents. If Shoreham was too dangerous to operate, and it was, and if Indian Point is too unsafe to operate, and it is, then why aren’t the upstate reactors also too dangerous? Indeed, design-wise, one could make the case that the Indian Point reactors are of a better design than those upstate: all except Ginna are General Electric Boiling Water Reactors suffering from the same inadequate containment and other design deficiencies as Fukushima while Ginna is one of the oldest, most decrepit reactors in the U.S.
The difference is that the upstate reactors have more public support than those closer to New York City. And the job losses that would occur if the upstate reactors were closed would have more impact in the economically more depressed upstate regions. In addition, Cuomo and the PSC argue that the upstate reactors are needed to meet the state’s carbon reduction goals. They claim that if closed their power would be replaced with natural gas.
But there are ways around both of those problems, and that is to create a true Clean Energy Standard combined with job programs. Deployment of large-scale renewable and energy efficiency programs (and it’s true New York is already headed in this direction) can both replace the relative small amounts of power from Fitzpatrick and Ginna and create many more jobs than those two reactors provide. In fact, NIRS and the Alliance for a Green Economy already have put forth such a plan for a Fitzpatrick shutdown. Indeed, done right, such programs can close Indian Point and Nine Mile Point as well.
Under Gov. Cuomo, New York actually has the opportunity to lead the nation in creating the nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system. The fundamentals are already there in New York’s plan, what’s missing is the political courage to do so. And getting out from under the notion that the upstate reactors are somehow safer than reactors closer to New York City.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo could be a hero to the clean energy movement. Right now, however, he seems intent on leading the state into adopting a hypocritical, indeed schizophrenic, policy that views the lives of upstate New Yorkers as less important as those downstate.
We will provide a more complete analysis of the Clean Energy Standard proposal soon. There will be opportunity for public comment and involvement on the proposal and we’ll keep you posted on that as well.
January 27, 2016
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