Suffolk CloseUp: Bailing out nuclear plants

COURTESY PHOTO  Governor Andrew Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo

Shelter Islanders as well as other residents of Suffolk County and New York State will soon be getting higher utility bills.

The state Public Service Commission (PSC) last week approved, despite strong opposition, a $7.6 billion bailout of aging nuclear power plants in upstate New York that their owners have said are uneconomic to run without government support.

As a result, there will be a surcharge for 12 years on electric bills paid by residential and industrial customers.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appoints the members of the PSC, has called for the continued operation of the nuclear plants in order, he says, to save jobs.

The bailout would be part of a “Clean Energy Standard” advanced by Mr. Cuomo. Under it, 50 percent of electricity used in New York by 2030 would come from “clean and renewable energy sources” — with nuclear power fitting the bill, acording to Mr. Cuomo.

“Nuclear energy is neither clean nor renewable,” testified Pauline Salotti, vice chair of the Green Party of Suffolk at a recent hearing in Riverhead on the plan.

“Without these subsidies, nuclear plants cannot compete with renewable energy and will close,” declared a statement to the PSC by Jessica Azulay, program director of the Syracuse-based Alliance for a Green Economy. “But under the guise of ‘clean energy,’ the nuclear industry is about to get its hands on our money in order to save its own profits, at the expense of public health and safety.”

The “Clean Energy Standard” earmarks twice as much money for the nuclear power subsidy than for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. It claims that nuclear power is comparable because nuclear plants don’t emit carbon or greenhouse gasses, the key nuclear industry argument for nuclear plants nationally and worldwide these days in response to climate change.

What the industry doesn’t mention, however, is that the “nuclear cycle” or “nuclear chain” — the entire nuclear system — is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Numerous statements sent to the New York PSC on the plan pointed to this.

“Nuclear is not emission-free!” Manna Jo Greene, environmental director of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, wrote the PSC. “The claim of nuclear power having ‘zero-emission attributes’ ignores emissions generated in mining, milling, enriching, transporting and storing nuclear fuel.”

“Nuclear power is not carbon-free,” wrote Michel Lee, head of the Council on Intelligent Energy & Conservation Policy. “If one stage” — reactor operation itself — “produces minimal carbon … every other stage produces prodigious amounts.” Thus the nuclear “industry is a big climate change polluter … Nuclear power is actually a chain of highly energy-intensive industrial processes, which combined, consume large amounts of fossil fuels and generate potent warming gasses. These include: uranium mining, milling enrichment, fuel fabrication, transport” and Ms. Lee’s list went on.

In opposing the New York nuclear subsidy, Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, wrote in an op-ed in Albany Times Union that he was “shocked” by the PSC’s “proposal that the lion’s share of the Clean Energy Standard funding would be a nuclear bailout.”

He took issue with the claim of saving jobs, continuing that “allowing the upstate nuclear plants to close now and replace them with equal energy output” from offshore wind and solar power “would be cheaper and would create more jobs.” The closure of the upstate plants “would jeopardize fewer than 2,000 jobs,” while a “peer-reviewed study” he has done “about converting New York State to 100 percent clean, renewable energy – which is entirely possible now — would create a net of approximately 82,000 good, long-term jobs.”

The upstate nuclear power plants to be bailed out under the plan would be FitzPatrick, Nine Mile Point 1 and 2 and Ginna.
Reporter Tim Knauss of the Post-Standard of Syracuse wrote: “Industry watchers say New York would be the first state to establish nuclear subsidies based on environmental attributes, a benefit typically reserved for renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.” Mr. Cuomo “directed the PSC to create subsides for upstate reactors.”

Reuters has reported that the nuclear “industry hopes that if New York succeeds, it could pressure other states to adopt similar subsides” for nuclear plants. The headline of the Reuters story: “New York could show the way to rescue U.S. nuclear plants.”

The two Indian Point nuclear power plants, 26 miles north of New York City, are not now included in the plan but it “leaves the door open to subsidies” for them, says Ms. Azulay.

This would mean “the costs [of the bailout] will rise to over $10 billion.”