home Politics, U A nuclear plant’s closure was hailed as a green win. Then emissions went up

A nuclear plant’s closure was hailed as a green win. Then emissions went up

Shuttering of New York facility raises awkward climate crisis questions as gas – not renewables – fills gap in power generation

When New York’s deteriorating and unloved Indian Point nuclear plant finally shuttered in 2021, its demise was met with delight from environmentalists who had long demanded it be scrapped.

But there has been a sting in the tail – since the closure, New York’s greenhouse gas emissions have gone up.

Castigated for its impact upon the surrounding environment and feared for its potential to unleash disaster close to the heart of New York City, Indian Point nevertheless supplied a large chunk of the state’s carbon-free electricity.

Since the plant’s closure, it has been gas, rather then clean energy such as solar and wind, that has filled the void, leaving New York City in the embarrassing situation of seeing its planet-heating emissions jump in recent years to the point its power grid is now dirtier than Texas’s, as well as the US average.

“From a climate change point of view it’s been a real step backwards and made it harder for New York City to decarbonize its electricity supply than it could’ve been,” said Ben Furnas, a climate and energy policy expert at Cornell University. “This has been a cautionary tale that has left New York in a really challenging spot.”

The closure of Indian Point raises sticky questions for the green movement and states such as New York that are looking to slash carbon pollution. Should long-held concerns about nuclear be shelved due to the overriding challenge of the climate crisis? If so, what should be done about the US’s fleet of ageing nuclear plants?

For those who spent decades fighting Indian Point, the power plant had few redeeming qualities even in an era of escalating global heating. Perched on the banks of the Hudson River about 25 miles north of Manhattan, the hulking facility started operation in the 1960s and its three reactors at one point contributed about a quarter of New York City’s power.

It faced a constant barrage of criticism over safety concerns, however, particularly around the leaking of radioactive material into groundwater and for harm caused to fish when the river’s water was used for cooling. Pressure from Andrew Cuomo, New York’s then governor, and Bernie Sanders – the senator called Indian Point a “catastrophe waiting to happen” – led to a phased closure announced in 2017, with the two remaining reactors shutting in 2020 and 2021.

The closure was cause for jubilation in green circles, with Mark Ruffalo, the actor and environmentalist, calling the plant’s end “a BIG deal”. He added in a video: “Let’s get beyond Indian Point.” New York has two other nuclear stations, which have also faced opposition, that have licenses set to expire this decade.

But rather than immediately usher in a new dawn of clean energy, Indian Point’s departure spurred a jump in planet-heating emissions. New York upped its consumption of readily available gas to make up its shortfall in 2020 and again in 2021, as nuclear dropped to just a fifth of the state’s electricity generation, down from about a third before Indian Point’s closure.

This reversal will not itself wreck New York’s goal of making its grid emissions-free by 2040. Two major projects bringing Canadian hydropower and upstate solar and wind electricity will come online by 2027, while the state is pushing ahead with new offshore wind projects – New York’s first offshore turbines started whirring last week. Kathy Hochul, New York’s governor, has vowed the state will “build a cleaner, greener future for all New Yorkers”.

Even as renewable energy blossoms at a gathering pace in the US, though, it is gas that remains the most common fallback for utilities once they take nuclear offline, according to Furnas. This mirrors a situation faced by Germany after it looked to move away from nuclear in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, only to fall back on coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, as a temporary replacement.

“As renewables are being built we still need energy for when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining and most often it’s gas that is doing that,” said Furnas. “It’s a harrowing dynamic. Taking away a big slice of clean energy coming from nuclear can be a self-inflicted wound from a climate change point of view.”

With the world barreling towards disastrous climate change impacts due to the dawdling pace of emissions cuts, some environmentalists have set aside reservations and accepted nuclear as an expedient power source. The US currently derives about a fifth of its electricity from nuclear power.

Bill McKibben, author, activist and founder of 350.org, said that the position “of the people I know and trust” is that “if you have an existing nuke, keep it open if you can. I think most people are agnostic on new nuclear, hoping that the next generation of reactors might pan out but fearing that they’ll be too expensive.

The hard part for nuclear, aside from all the traditional and still applicable safety caveats, is that sun and wind and batteries just keep getting cheaper and cheaper, which means the nuclear industry increasingly depends on political gamesmanship to get public funding,” McKibben added.

Wariness over nuclear has long been a central tenet of the environmental movement, though, and opponents point to concerns over nuclear waste, localized pollution and the chance, albeit unlikely, of a major disaster. In California, a coalition of green groups recently filed a lawsuit to try to force the closure of the Diablo Canyon facility, which provides about 8% of the state’s electricity.

The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, south of Los Osos, California, has long been a focus for environmental campaigners. Photograph: Michael Mariant/AP

“Diablo Canyon has not received the safety upgrades and maintenance it needs and we are dubious that nuclear is safe in any regard, let alone without these upgrades – it’s a huge problem,” said Hallie Templeton, legal director of Friends of the Earth, which was founded in 1969 to, among other things, oppose Diablo Canyon.

Templeton said the groups were alarmed over Diablo Canyon’s discharge of waste water into the environment and the possibility an earthquake could trigger a disastrous leak of nuclear waste. A previous Friends of the Earth deal with the plant’s operator, PG&E, to shutter Diablo Canyon was clouded by state legislation allowing the facility to remain open for another five years, and potentially longer, which Templeton said was a “twist of the knife” to opponents.

“We are not stuck in the past – we are embracing renewable energy technology like solar and wind,” she said. “There was ample notice for everyone to get their houses in order and switch over to solar and wind and they didn’t do anything. The main beneficiary of all this is the corporation making money out of this plant remaining active for longer.”

Meanwhile, supporters of nuclear – some online fans have been called “nuclear bros” – claim the energy source has moved past the specter of Chernobyl and into a new era of small modular nuclear reactors. Amazon recently purchased a nuclear-powered data center, while Bill Gates has also plowed investment into the technology. Rising electricity bills, as well as the climate crisis, are causing people to reassess nuclear, advocates say.

“Things have changed drastically – five years ago I would get a very hostile response when talking about nuclear, now people are just so much more open about it,” said Grace Stanke, a nuclear fuels engineer and former Miss America who regularly gives talks on the benefits of nuclear.

“I find that young people really want to have a discussion about nuclear because of climate change, but people of all ages want reliable, accessible energy,” she said. “Nuclear can provide that.”

Source: The Guardian