WASN’T THERE A GAME kids played that started with the question: What would you rather die of? The choices were either a rabid hippopotamus bite or an meteor hitting you while you rode your bike.
That game took adult form last week following the announcement by Governor Cuomo of an agreement to shut down two nuclear energy plants on the Hudson River in Westchester County by the year 2025. The governor didn’t frame it this way, but some reactions to the loss of the plants sounded like we we’d been forced to choose between a radioactive meltdown or the one-two punch of poisoned water and an even warmer atmosphere caused by the only alternative fuel for generating electricity–natural gas from fracking.
I’ll take my chances with the meteor because I don’t ride a bike anymore. Likewise resolving our energy dilemma isn’t a matter of picking the lesser of two evils.
If you missed the announcement about the nuclear plants, it’s not surprising. It nudged its way into the headlines for a day or so, fighting for notice between bulletins from Washington and tweets from Trump Tower. It’s already faded from the news but the agreement will affect Columbia County.
There are three nuclear power plants at Indian Point less than 70 miles south of the City of Hudson as the neutron flies. The oldest one was shut down more than 40 years ago. The two operating reactors went on line in the mid-1970s. They reportedly supply as much as 25% of the electrical power for New York City and Westchester County. There’s also a large amount of radioactive waste in old fuel rods stored in special pools at the site. There’s no place else to put this nasty stuff.
It was crazy to build nuclear power plants so close to New York City. Nuclear power is safe and clean except when it isn’t, like most recently in 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. A massive meltdown happened there after an earthquake and tsunami. Indian Point lies on the Ramapo Fault Line. We’ve been lucky.
Why us? This county doesn’t use electricity from Indian Point and we’re far enough away from the reactors that any releases of radiation in the future are less of a threat here than they are to the millions of folks in the metropolitan New York area.
What we do have are aging power lines that carry electricity from hydroelectric, nuclear and wind energy generators north and west of us. Lines through Claverack and Livingston transmit power south to the metropolis. The debate over how and where to expand those high voltage lines could be revived with the impending shutdown of Indian Point.
The current owner of Indian Point, Entergy, says the decision to shut down the two plants was the result economics. The company says it’s cheaper to burn natural gas to make electricity than it is to smash atoms. The Entergy folks make it sound like those are the only two choices. They’re right that we’ll need some natural gas in the short term as we phase out nuclear energy. But to pin hopes for the future on gas condemns us to a planet too hot to inhabit.
The governor has committed all of us to hard choices ahead. Proposed renewable energy sources–wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and who knows what else–are promising but not yet ready to provide all the energy we think we need every day. We will have to compromise and sacrifice. It’s doubtful we’ll get help from Washington for the next few years. This is on us and our neighbors and anybody who believes our descendants deserve a break.
We witness mass migrations on the news. Some migrants are fleeing wars, others poverty or disaster. Sometimes the dislocation is the result of manmade forces. Like other old nuke plants, let’s hope Indian Point closes without a major incident that threatens lives and property. With this agreement, Gov. Cuomo has now made that option more likely than ever. He deserves praise for his persistence and his leadership.