The Tragedy of Indian Point
Bowing to anti-nuclear fears, New York chose to shut down a reliable and safe source of energy—and now burns more fossil fuels than before.
Two years ago, on April 30, 2021, the final reactor at New York’s Indian Point nuclear power plant ceased operation. This final closure (the plant’s first reactor was shuttered in 1974, the second in 2020) brought to an end a decades-long saga over the 2,000-megawatt behemoth on the Hudson River. New York’s then-governor, Andrew Cuomo, touted the shutdown as a major victory for state residents, “ending the threat the plant has long-posed to an area that is vitally important to our state, the nation, and the world.”
Cuomo believed that Indian Point, located within 50 miles of New York City, would not be able to withstand earthquakes; that it could suffer meltdowns like those at Chernobyl, Fukushima, or Three Mile Island; and that it could be sabotaged by terrorists. Environmentalists asserted that the plant was polluting the river. Much of the environmental movement backed Cuomo, with Hudson River protection organization Riverkeeper joining the decommissioning negotiations and citing the numerous radioactive isotopes emitted from Indian Point as a key reason for the plant’s closure. Advocates claimed that strontium leaking from the plant was found in local fish, said that the plant’s thermal cooling structure killed 2 million fish annually, and criticized its once-through cooling system for consuming, heating, and discharging up to 2.5 billion gallons of water per day.
Yet the closure of Indian Point was a serious mistake. Claims of environmental harm fall apart upon examination, while dreams of replacing Indian Point’s nuclear power with solar, wind, efficiency gains, and Canadian hydropower haven’t become reality. It’s striking to consider the many ways in which supporters of the move were wrong.
Start with carbon emissions. Indian Point was mostly replaced with natural gas, not renewables. In the first full month after closure, New York’s carbon emissions from in-state generation rose 35 percent. New York’s natural gas generation jumped from 35 percent to 39 percent, triggering new gas generation downstate. This result was predictable: nearly everywhere nuclear plants are shut down, fossil-fuel use rises.
Pledges made to workers of “new, well-paying jobs in the region” didn’t pan out, either. Indian Point directly employed 1,000 people; the promised positions from renewable energy and energy efficiency have not materialized. Nuclear plants provide more jobs per unit of energy generated than any other power source and pay 30 percent higher salaries than the local average.
Plant-safety warnings were unfounded. Cuomo’s top concern was the proximity of Indian Point to New York City. The state’s other three operating nuclear plants, which he did not attempt to close, are located in rural areas near Lake Ontario. The fear of a natural disaster—in this case, an earthquake—sending radiation to the Big Apple is understandable, but the Hudson River Valley does not experience cataclysmic earthquakes like the one that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, and reactors like Indian Point are designed to withstand, and often do withstand, some seismic activity.
When Indian Point was originally licensed, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which ensures the safety of all U.S. reactors, held 18 months of administrative proceedings and concluded that the plant was designed to tolerate even the most severe earthquake that could hit the area. The NRC revisited this conclusion in 2009 and conducted a complementary review after Fukushima and reconfirmed it: Indian Point was realistically earthquake-proof.
Even when an earthquake’s impact exceeds what a plant is built for, that doesn’t necessarily mean a meltdown will occur. The North Anna plant in Virginia was struck by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in 2011 that led to more ground acceleration than the plant was designed to endure, yet the plant suffered no significant damage. It safely reopened within a few months after a thorough NRC inspection.
None of this guarantees, of course, that a worst-case scenario could not happen. Yet even if Indian Point suffered a meltdown due to an earthquake or human error, the three most relevant examples of nuclear accidents in civilian nuclear energy don’t support the conclusion that Indian Point threatened New York City.
The nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986 is the worst in the history of nuclear energy. One of the plant’s Soviet-designed RBMK-1000 reactors exploded, releasing radiation into the atmosphere for ten days and exposing millions of people to the invisible pollutant. Yet Chernobyl was less lethal than commonly believed. The UN has reported that radiation doses received among much of the public are unlikely to create discernible increases in most cancers, with the exception of thyroid cancer. Because thyroid cancer has a 99 percent survivorship rate, the UN expects only 50 to 160 thyroid cancer deaths (in addition to the roughly 30 deaths that occurred in the accident itself and its immediate aftermath.
Advances in safety culture and reactor design since 1986 render a Chernobyl-style disaster harder to imagine. The accident occurred because the plant operators conducted an unauthorized experiment with their least-experienced staff, while possibly not knowing of a major design flaw. To simplify somewhat: the reactor at Chernobyl detonated because steam accumulated in the reactor vessel, which increased reactivity, leading to more heat, more steam, and more radioactivity—creating a runaway reaction. In the U.S., reactivity decreases when steam forms in the reactor. American reactors are also enclosed in massive concrete and steel containment domes designed to subdue steam explosions and meltdowns. The U.S. is also an international leader in nuclear safety.
Fukushima, too, was less harmful than commonly believed. To date, the Japanese government has attributed the death of one plant worker to radiation released in the accident (though even that claim is contested). It was the Japanese government’s response to the accident that proved most destructive. The government shut down all of the nation’s nuclear plants, which raised air pollution and energy prices. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the price hikes alone likely resulted in more than 1,200 deaths, as residents could not afford to heat their homes.
Anti-nuclear advocates fear another Three Mile Island, where, in 1979, a reactor partially melted down in south-central Pennsylvania. Yet no one received harmful doses of radiation from the event, which the industry learned from, adapting to minimize the possibility of future accidents.
What about the more mundane claims of everyday environmental harm? While “radioactive water” sounds scary, the occasional leaks of such water have never endangered the public or environment. Proponents of the plant’s closure “can say as much as they want that there’s no safe dose of radiation,” says Guido Núñez-Mujica, a senior data scientist at the Breakthrough Institute, “but there’s no clear evidence of this.” In an interview, health physicist and nuclear engineer David LeClear said that the environmentalist position “is like saying any amount of driving your car is unsafe. Any amount of swimming is unsafe. Saying it’s not safe is like saying living is not safe.”
The existence of radiation standards around the world similar to the NRC’s further discredits the antinuclear position. The NRC standard governing Indian Point—less than 0.1 rem per year exposure for members of the public—is consistent with Canadian and EU guidelines. According Holtec International, Indian Point’s owner, minuscule discharge contributes one one-thousandth of what locals receive naturally from background radiation. And according to the NRC, the cesium, strontium, and iodine leaks from Indian Point registered well below both NRC release limits and the recommended maximum radiation dosage, meaning that they were never unsafe.
The attention given to Indian Point’s radioactive discharge ignores the bigger picture: Indian Point is not the only authorized source of radiation discharging into New York waterways. As Holtec has explained, “There are hundreds of radiological discharge permits in the state” held by “hospitals, industrial sites, and municipal wastewater facilities.” All these entities “discharge radioactive effluent to bodies of water in the state at safe, legal and scientifically set limits, just like Indian Point.”
Indian Point’s environmental harms must therefore be seen in context. The most recent environmental report on Indian Point Unit 3, conducted in 2021, shows that strontium-90 was “not detected” in any fish sampled. Yes, fish have been sucked into Indian Point’s water intake system or killed by its thermal pollution, but the plant occupied just 1.5 miles along a river with over 300 miles of shoreline.
The environmental impact of Indian Point is small compared with that of green alternatives such as hydropower, which changes a river’s temperature and disrupts many square miles of habitat; and of solar and wind power, which occupy up to 75 and 360 times more land than nuclear, respectively, while requiring orders of magnitude more mining. Ironically, the shuttering of Indian Point has led to more environmental harm through increased air pollution and fracking from new natural gas generation.
Concerns about terrorism are misguided as well. Nuclear plants have multiple levels of access, armed guards, and other forms of systematic protection preventing bad actors from acquiring nuclear fuel. Terrorists could even fly an airliner into the containment dome and fail to pierce it. Nuclear waste is also a poor target for terrorists. The spent nuclear fuel that isn’t inside the containment dome is either too hot for humans to handle without specialized equipment or is stored in massive concrete casks that weigh over 100 tons. Terrorists could more easily obtain radioactive materials for a “dirty bomb” by stealing medical waste from hospitals.
While nuclear power does pose some risks, New York chose to replace the minute risk of harm coming from Indian Point with the guaranteed harm from the increased burning of fossil fuels. And even when accounting for Chernobyl, nuclear power overall has operated at the same level of safety as solar and wind per unit of energy generated.
Anti-nuclear activists complain about radioactive water from spent fuel storage but ignore solar e-waste and turn a blind eye to the troubling environmental impact of lithium-ion storage, which is necessary to balance intermittent renewables. Nuclear energy, with its reliable zero-carbon output and high energy density, wins the balancing test against renewables. If they want to fight climate change, environmentalists must push aside their counterfactual understanding of nuclear energy.
Indian Point has closed, but New York can ensure that such a misguided decision isn’t repeated at other plants in the state. The licenses for Nine Mile Point and R. E. Ginna will expire this decade. Public support could be decisive in protecting these clean-energy powerhouses.
New Yorkers could also look to a new nuclear future. Advanced reactors, set to deploy around 2030, pose even smaller risks of meltdown. They could be sited nearer to communities than old-school reactors (thus making it easier to get the power to where it would be used), and some utilities are even considering erecting advanced reactors on decommissioned coal sites. Who knows—maybe someday, Indian Point could even be home to a nuclear plant again.
Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images
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