Nuclear Update - Longer Version of Newsletter Article
Author: Nuclear Committee Chair
(This is a longer version of the article "Nuclear Update", which appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of the L.I. Sierra Club Newsletter.)
Is nuclear power clean energy? Governor Cuomo seems to be of two minds. He wants to force us New Yorkers to pay a premium on our electric bill, in order to keep four upstate reactors open. Yet he also wants to shut the two troubled Indian Point reactors (for good reason!). As you can surmise, there are a few, um, interesting updates since we last wrote about nuclear power in the L.I. Sierra Club Newsletter of Spring 2015. It’s like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” or “A Tale of Two Governors”.
First, the electric surcharge. It all began so innocently …
In 2014, Governor Cuomo announced his new initiative, Reforming the Energy Vision (REV), which led to the 2015 State Energy Plan. On June 25, 2015, the New York State Department of Public Service (DPS), whose leaders (the Public Service Commission or PSC) are appointed by the Governor, released its proposed Clean Energy Standard (CES), a plan for satisfying the State’s future energy needs within environmental constraints. Commendably, the CES calls for NY to get 50% of its electricity from “clean and renewable energy sources” and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% vs. 1990 levels, both by 2030. Perversely, it would also bail out four 40-year-old, money-losing nuclear reactors upstate to keep them operating: FitzPatrick, Ginna (pronounced guh-NAY), and Nine Mile Point units 1 and 2.
How can nuclear power be considered “clean”? The CES claims, as do many supporters of nuclear power, that nuclear is “zero carbon”. But it isn’t: look beyond the reactor dome, at the entire fuel cycle and the entire lifecycle of the plant, and you find on the order of 66 g CO2e/kWh (that’s greenhouse gases equivalent to 66 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour of energy produced). (Sovacool B. K., 2008, “Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey”) (For comparison, the carbon footprint of fossil fuels ranges from 443 (natural gas) to 1050 (coal) g CO2e/kWh, and offshore wind crushes all competitors at 9 g.) Cuomo also claims that saving 2,000 nuclear jobs justifies the bailout. However, according to Mark Jacobson, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, about half of those jobs would remain for years to decommission the plant, and an equal investment in renewables would create far more jobs than those lost. Going even further to convert New York State to 100% renewables would create 82,000 net jobs.
How does the bailout work? The CES creates a separate “tier” or slice of the NYS energy pie solely from nuclear power and guarantees a minimum price for electricity from these plants — well above the current market rate. Who pays the multi-billion dollar difference? Ratepayers, and not only those served by those plants — 60% will be paid by downstate ratepayers, even though this energy is used only upstate. Hey, I thought nuclear power on Long Island died at Shoreham years ago, and we’re still paying for that mistake!
How did this happen? The original title of the proposal (and the phrase to search on) is “Case 15-E-0302 - In the Matter of the Implementation of a Large-Scale Renewable Program and a Clean Energy Standard”. No mention of nuclear there; but somehow a nuclear subsidy was tacked on.
On June 30, 2016, 112 organizations signed a letter to Cuomo protesting the nuclear subsidy [http://www.allianceforagreeneconomy.org/content/letter-cuomo-112-groups-opposing-nuclear-subsidies-ny] of $3.5 billion in the proposed CES. They included SC Atlantic Chapter, four SC Groups (Mid-Hudson, Niagara, NYC, & Iroquois), the Long Island Progressive Coalition, Renewable Energy Long Island, Food & Water Watch, and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.
A week later, on July 8, the DPS Staff released a new “responsive proposal” for the CES, with an even higher cost of $7.6 billion over 12 years for the bailout, twice the amount that it would invest in renewables! It would force consumers to pay for nuclear power at $56-68 per megawatt hour. Only 10 days were allowed for public comment — extended to 14 after citizen complaints.
On the last day, July 22, four groups, including SC Atlantic Chapter, wrote a public comment protesting the bailout on the grounds of cost, environment, safety and the opaque, undemocratic, rushed process. (Not even the State Legislature had a say.) They pointed out that in the Northeast, efficiency costs only $25-50/MWh and wind only $44, far less than nuclear’s $56. The CES generated a total of 460 filed documents and over 9,800 public comments, overwhelmingly against the nuclear bailout.
On the same day, over 100 organizations and elected officials signed another open letter to Cuomo protesting the subsidies and the short notice. Signers included the SC Atlantic Chapter and Mid-Hudson, Niagara and Iroquois Groups. “Under this new proposal, New York will spend more than twice as much on nuclear subsidies than it will for renewable energy under the Clean Energy Standard.”
On July 26, 2016, Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter published an article on their web site, "NYS Clean Energy Standard Moves Forward - But Should Omit Nuclear Subsidy", by Bob Ciesielski, the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter energy committee chair.
On August 1, the PSC approved the CES anyway.
However, there is some good news, and from a utility no less: On October 19, rival utilities sued in Federal court to block the bailout in the CES.
Unfortunately, Entergy, the owner of the Indian Point nuclear power plant, could sue to be included in the bailout. That would raise its cost to around $10 billion and prolong the danger to the metro and Long Island areas for another decade or two. Thus begins Part 2 of our update: Indian Point.
The Indian Point (IP) nuclear power plant is located on the Hudson River in the town of Buchanan in the county of Westchester. It is less than 30 miles from New York City and upwind of a large portion of Long Island, so it is close enough that any problem at the plant would affect both the city and Long Island. The two operating reactors at Indian Point are more than 40 years old, which places them beyond the expiration date of their original operating licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). They sit within a mile of the intersection of two seismic faults, one of which was not discovered until 2008. “There have been more than 40 spills and unexpected shutdowns at the facility since 2011.” (FiOS1 News, Oct. 2, 2016). Even in normal operation, the plant’s cooling system draws water from the Hudson River, killing over a billion organisms, and outputs hot water into the river. And in an accident, the jet stream would bring radioactive fallout from Indian Point to Long Island, the damages from which are not covered by homeowner’s insurance. Here is the latest news on Indian Point:
Ongoing: The under construction Spectra AIM (Algonquin Incremental Market) pipeline, a 42-inch diameter, high-pressure pipeline to carry fracked methane, will run within 100 ft. of safety structures at IP, despite the obvious danger this will at present. (sape2016.org)
May 9, 2015: Insulation in a high-voltage coil failed, causing a transformer fire, the third transformer accident in eight years. More than 3,000 gallons of transformer oil leaked into the Hudson; a simple moat, which the NYS DEC had earlier ordered, might have prevented that. (riverkeeper.org/general/entergys-failure-to-fix-issues-with-indian-point-is-behind-hudson-river-oil-spill/) More ominously, at the same time an electrical supply room was flooded. The Union of Concerned Scientists rated this accident a “near miss”, saying, “had the flooding not been discovered and stopped in time, the panels could have been submerged, plunging Unit 3 into a dangerous station blackout, in which all alternating current (AC) electricity is lost…. A station blackout led to the meltdown of three nuclear reactor cores at Fukushima Dai-ichi in 2011”. (riverkeeper.org/docket/indian-points-bad-year/)
Feb. 5, 2016: IP discovered and reported a leak of radioactivity into the Hudson, the “direct water source for Poughkeepsie, Wappingers Falls, Highland, Port Ewen, East Fishkill, Hyde Park, and the Village of Rhinebeck [and] a backup water source for some 9 million residents of New York City and Westchester County.” (spoonsenergymatters, link below). IP claimed that it is only “harmless tritium”. They’re wrong on both counts. First, tritium is not harmless: it has a half-life of 12.3 years and emits beta particles that can cause “cancer, genetic effects, developmental abnormalities, reproductive effects [, …] mutations, tumors, cell death [, …] decreased weight of brain and genital tract organs in mice [, … and] irreversible loss of female germ cells in both mice and monkeys even at low concentrations”. (Straume; Rytomaa; Torok; Dobson, 1979; cited in “Tritium: Health Consequences” by Cindy Folkers of NIRS, April 2006, nirs.org/factsheets/tritiumbasicinfo.pdf) Second, tritium is only the first radioactive element to be detected in such leaks, because tritium forms water, which is mobile. Heavier elements such as Strontium-90 and Cesium-137 also leaked; they tend to bind to soil, but will eventually follow tritium into the river. (spoonsenergymatters.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/indian-point-contaminates-the-hudson-river-with-uncontrollable-radioactive-flow/)
March 29, 2016: IP, in a decennial inspection of the reactor core during a scheduled shutdown for refueling, discovered and reported to the NRC that over a quarter of the “baffle bolts” inside Unit 2 were degraded. These bolts hold plates in the reactor that hold the fuel rods in place and guide cooling water over them. Loose plates can, among other things, impede cooling and cause meltdowns. (“From nuts to bolts: Why the NRC must ground BOTH Indian Point reactors”, by Paul Gallay of Riverkeeper, April 1, 2016) During the same refueling, “a breaker tripped and cut power in one of the reactors. The diesel back-up also failed. A second backup system, fortunately, worked.” (riverkeeper.org/docket/indian-points-bad-year/)
May 4, 2016: NRC reversed an earlier decision and “agreed with (Attorney General Schneiderman’s) office that Entergy and NRC staff have systematically undercounted the costs and impacts associated with severe reactor accidents at” IP. (“A.G. Schneiderman Applauds Major Decision By Federal NRC Commissioners To Require Re-Analysis Of Severe Accident Prevention Measures At Indian Point”, May 4, 2016, Long Island Exchange). Cuomo also released a statement supporting the decision.
June 24, 2016: Unit 2 shut down due to a leak in a pipe carrying clean (non-radioactive) river water. Governor Cuomo released a statement: "This is yet another sign that the aging and wearing away of important components at the facility are having a direct and unacceptable impact on safety, and is further proof that the plant is not a reliable generation resource." (governor.ny.gov/news/statement-governor-andrew-m-cuomo-regarding-latest-indian-point-shutdown)
July 6, 2016: IP Unit 2 had an unscheduled shutdown -- the second in a week and the third in about a month.
September 30, 2016: About 600 gallons of lubricating oil leaked; Unit 2 shut down. ("Governor Cuomo visits Indian Point nuclear plant to assess oil spill damage", FiOS1 News, Oct. 2, 2016; "Environmental group joins call for Indian Point shutdown", News12 Westchester, Oct. 3 2016)
November 21, 2016: Entergy lost a case in New York State Court of Appeals related to renewing its license to operate Indian Point. It’s the (Federal) NRC that renews the license, but it recognizes state law regulating “coastal waters”. New York State argued that its coastal waters laws indeed apply to Indian Point and thus could prevent re-licensing. Entergy argued that Indian Point was exempt from those laws because they were passed after Indian Point’s initial license. However, the Court ruled unanimously that re-licensing is not grandfathered in. ("NY court deals Indian Point setback"), LoHud, The Journal News (part of USA Today), 11/21/2016)
On another positive note: An offshore wind farm near Block Island completed construction on August 18 and is due to begin operating in late 2016. The company that built it, Deepwater Wind, has also proposed larger offshore wind farms, including east of Montauk, off Long Beach and off Maryland. New York State included the Montauk proposal in its offshore wind “blueprint”, which should become part of the master plan of NYSERDA (NYS Energy Research and Development Authority, nyserda.ny.gov) in 2017. ("State Releases Plan for Harnessing Offshore Wind Energy", East Hampton Star, September 16, 2016)
What can I do? Governor Cuomo has responded to public pressure in the past, e.g. on fracking, so he might listen to your calls and letters on this issue. Call him at (518) 474-8390. To help stop the nuclear bailout, go to StopTheCuomoTax.org and sign the petition. Encourage him to push forward on all NYS wind projects. At the national level, contact the NRC and urge them to adopt the recommendations of UCS to improve safety of all U.S. reactors. (“U.S. Nuclear Power after Fukushima: Common Sense Recommendations for Safety and Security”, July 2011.)