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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is a freelance writer on oil and gas, renewable energy, climate change, energy policy and geopolitics. He is based in Pittsburgh, PA.

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U.S. Nuclear Power Plants Continue To Close

Indian Point power plant

New York City’s major source of electricity for more than four decades could be taken offline in the next few years, a major victory for the state’s governor, who has called the power plant a danger to the city.

The Indian Point nuclear power plant, which consists of two reactors, came online in the 1970s. It has been supplying relatively low-cost and low-carbon power to the city since then. However, it is located just 30 miles from the Big Apple, and as it ages it has become a worry for Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has called it a “ticking time bomb,” according to The New York Times.

Earlier this week, Gov. Cuomo announced that he had convinced Indian Point’s owner, Louisiana-based Entergy, to shut down the reactors by 2021. “I have personally been trying to close it down for 15 years,” the governor said. The closure “eliminates a major risk.” Entergy will bear the costs of decommissioning and the state will withdraw legal challenges against the plant.

Even better for New York is the Governor’s claim that the low-carbon energy provided by Indian Point will be replaced by energy efficiency and renewable energy, and as such, won’t add to the state’s climate burden.

But not everyone agrees that the massive 2 gigawatt nuclear complex can be replaced so easily without fossil fuels. Although Gov. Cuomo insists that the state won’t have to turn to natural gas to supply New York City, there is a good chance that shale gas from the Marcellus might be called upon anyway. “There is currently not enough carbon-free energy in the pipeline to replace Indian Point,” Robert Freudenberg, director of energy and environmental programs at the Regional Planning Association, told The New York Times in an interview. Related: Toshiba Loses Billions On U.S. Nuclear Write-Offs

The situation is emblematic of an unfolding drama across the country as the nation’s nuclear power plants near retirement. The bulk of the 100 or so nuclear power plants in the U.S. were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, all of which were granted a standard 40-year license to operate. Many of those have expired or are nearing expiration, and the bulk of them have been granted 20-year license extensions. With dozens of reactors now a decade or so away from hitting their 60-year birthdays, the U.S. is faced with a dilemma of whether to shut them down or extend their lifespans by yet another 20 years.

While the New York government supported reactors elsewhere in the state, they resisted Indian Point because of its proximity to the city. Entergy ultimately conceded, as the company is in the midst of ridding itself of nuclear reactors in the north and is instead focusing on regulated markets in the south.

In fact, Entergy disputed Gov. Cuomo’s influence, citing cheap natural gas as a significant factor in its decision to shut down the plant. But Gov. Cuomo and the state’s attorney general resisted granting Entergy a 20-year license extension on Indian Point. Entergy spent $200 million over the past decade in legal fees trying to obtain a new license, to no avail.

If nuclear reactors are heading for retirement, the big question then becomes how to replace that lost capacity. It will be an uphill battle for New York to replace the shuttered Indian Point reactors and their 2 GW of clean power.

Gov. Cuomo is now aggressively pushing offshore wind, and is targeting 2.4 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030. The first down payment on that target is a 90-megawatt project off the coast of Long Island, which he is supporting. However, those projects will take years to come online even under the most optimistic circumstances, raising fears of a gap in power supply.

"It's going to require a lot of gas. Renewables aren't going to do it. I think people would be shocked and dismayed if we tried to do this on the back of conservation," John Bartlett, a portfolio manager at Reaves Asset Management, told E&E News in an interview. "We are talking about a titanic amount of power coming off in Zone J," referring to the section of the electric grid that serves New York. Related: Low Oil Prices Could Last As OPEC Cuts Won’t Suffice

Environmental groups are more confident. “Hats off to the Cuomo Administration and New York leaders for planning to shut down another nuclear plant and replacing it with clean energy,” Anna Aurilio, director of Environment America’s Global Warming Solutions Program, said in a statement. “There’s more than enough renewable energy projects in the pipeline to replace Indian Point.” Offshore wind could be complemented by onshore wind, solar, and energy efficiency. If New York fails to fill the gap left by Indian Point with renewables, the state can still import hydropower from Quebec.

Indeed, New York is unfazed. The state recently implemented a tighter renewable portfolio standard that requires utilities to source 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030, one of the most aggressive in the nation. Gov. Cuomo also announced this week that New York will cut greenhouse gas emissions by an additional 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030, tightening the requirements under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a regional cap-and-trade program between Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states. Gov. Cuomo is going all-in on renewables in an effort that has raised questions regarding his presidential aspirations in 2020.

Indian Point is just one power plant, but it is indicative of the eroding position of nuclear power. Only a handful of new nuclear reactors are under construction, and despite the hype of a “nuclear renaissance,” even the newest models are facing lengthy delays and cost overruns, a longstanding problem for the industry. Meanwhile, existing nuclear reactors are getting picked off, one by one.

Whether it will be solar, wind or natural gas, the one thing that is clear is that nuclear power will increasingly give way to alternatives.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Dan on January 12 2017 said:
    Michigan is closing nuke and coal plants and will be building natural gas plants instead.
  • Luke on January 12 2017 said:
    Well Germany is already finding out that so called 'renewables' are neither cheap, nor dependable as a source of base power; and it's not nearly as cheap as nuclear energy either. I will enjoy laughing when they are complaining about expensive electric bills and are depending on the same fuel source that they do such a good job of badmouthing... natural gas from fracked well.

    Frac baby Frac.
  • Erica Gray on January 12 2017 said:
    The sooner we stop propping up antiquated nuclear power plants, the safer we will all be and we surely don't need even more nuclear waste...for which there is no solution.

    Energy efficiency, renewables, storage and a distributed grid is what will provide energy security.
    https://youtu.be/Kxryv2XrnqM?t=3
  • Joe on January 12 2017 said:
    The average residential price for electricity in New York City is 17.26 cents/kwhr. Write that down and check it again as soon as the Nuclear plant is shut down, a mere 4 years from now.
  • Jim Hopf on January 13 2017 said:
    Arguments over whether the plant's output can be "replaced" with renewables miss the point. That renewable generation could have been used to replace fossil generation instead. Thus, the net result is a choice of fossil over nuclear.

    Closing nuclear plants while fossil fuels still account for most overall generation is simply indefensible. Completely incompatible with claims to care about global warming. Nukes should remain open, and all added renewable generation must be used to replace fossil fuels. Only when fossil is virtually gone should an argument about renewables vs. nuclear ensue.

    One particularly egregious example of this flawed logic is how a group which calls itself "Environment America’s *Global Warming Solutions* Program" could conceivably cheer the closure of a nuclear plant, i.e., a massive source of 24/7 non-CO2-emitting electricity. They actually advocate the closure of large non-emitting sources, just so they can be replaced with other non-emitting sources that they prefer. While leaving fossil generation intact... While the planet burns..... It is obvious that global warming is actually not their primary concern.
  • Bill Simpson on January 14 2017 said:
    Imagine the greenhouse gas those nuke plants have prevented being released for all those decades. Millions of tons? Billions of tons? A trillion tons? Some nuclear advocate should calculate that figure. It would be a staggering amount of carbon dioxide.
    How many trainloads of coal would have to be burned to generate the massive amount of electricity they made? Thousands of them. That is a lot of greenhouse gas avoided.
    The coral reefs around Japan are now dying from record high water temperatures. We keep pouring billions of tons of carbon dioxide from burning the fossil fuels of coal and natural gas into the atmosphere to generate electricity, and we will eventually warm the planet enough to release the trillions of tons of methane now trapped in permafrost, and on the ocean floor. Once that process starts, there will be no way to stop it because methane is roughly 8 times more effective at trapping heat as is carbon dioxide. It doesn't last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but it won't matter, since there is so much of it that could be released, if the planet gets warm enough to start the process. Once that methane release process begins, the Earth will be transformed into a much hotter planet for centuries thereafter. Humans probably will survive, but our numbers will be greatly reduced, as deserts spread over most of the planet, and rising sea levels continually flood more coastal regions. The acidification of the oceans might greatly reduce marine life, making fishing useless as a food source for the survivors.
    We are playing with possible near extinction, when alternatives to that risk exist.
    And of course, using a finite gas which is used to make most fertilizer, when you could instead use uranium whose most popular alternative use is making nuclear bombs, isn't exactly the smartest thing to do. Let's reduce the future food supply by using the natural gas, so that we can keep open the option of building more H-bombs down the road.
    Natural gas, for which we have no real substitute, should be treated like crude oil - it should be conserved to the greatest extent possible because nothing we have can yet replace them.
  • Rich on January 15 2017 said:
    Next time you see a coal train count the number of coal cars. In Wyoming I have seen them over a Mile long. Now multiply the number by four. The CO2 released by burning coal is at least that much after converting it to Dry-Ice. Those plants that are burning Natural Gas would have a train just three times as long if generating the same amount of electricity. My power is generated by a nearby coal power plant. every other day there is one of those mile long coal trains delivering coal to the power plant. All of that would be eliminated by a Nuclear power plant which produces less CO2 than any of the Renewables.
    This fact begs the question " Why are environmentalists forcing the nuclear power plants to shut down when they know it will result in the generation of more CO2?"
  • Brian on February 01 2017 said:
    Indian point is a threat to NYC. It needs to be closed ASAP.

    Renewable WILL CUT IT. Times have changed folks, solar and wind are now available cheaper than all other energy sources. Before gov breaks. The very same reserve generators that baseload nuclear and coal need, work just fine to gap fill for solar and wind. Those can be powered with gas from wastes. Hydro is also a perfectly good backup for solar and wind.

    Nuclear is the ultimate gov welfare queen and can't run 2 seconds without gov protection from liability. The taxpayers handle the wastes and the fuel for nuclear. Nuclear WON'T CUT IT. Uranium will be short in 10 years. IAEA Pub1104_scr.pdf Wastes per nuclear power plant per year: 27 tons spent fuel rod waste. deadly for a million years, 30 billion dollars dry casks for 100,000 years, 2M tons of toxic mining wastes.  Inflexible base load forces solar and wind off the grid and need pumped hydro nighttime storage.

    Fossils need 5.3T$ in gov breaks per year, and will require another 25T$ in the next 25 years if we keep using it. It's time to go renewable for all new energy projects.

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