Open Letter to Governor Cuomo,
We are writing as scientists and conservationists concerned about the future of New York’s nuclear power plants. Dealing with climate change requires that 100 percent of our electricity derive from clean, low-carbon energy sources. We thus applaud your efforts to include nuclear in a new, clean energy standard (CES).
At the same time, we are troubled by your efforts to close the Indian Point nuclear plant and to exclude it from the CES. Indian Point produced 12 percent of New York State’s total in-state electricity generation in 2015, 21 percent of its clean generation and four times more electricity than all of New York’s wind turbines. While wind and solar generate electricity intermittently, Indian Point produces much-needed reliable power. According to the white paper issued by New York’s Department of Public Service, the elimination of upstate nuclear power “would eviscerate the emission reductions achieved through the State’s renewable energy programs, diminish fuel diversity, increase price volatility, and financially harm host communities.”
If closed prematurely, Indian Point’s electricity will be replaced overwhelmingly by natural gas from fracking, a practice New York has banned. Replacing Indian Point with gas would cause at least an extra 6.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year, an emissions increase over twice as large as New York’s mandated emissions reduction under the EPA’s Clean Power Plan[i]. And New York’s dependence on natural gas would rise along with normal leaks of methane, a gas that causes more warming than carbon dioxide per unit mass.
We urge you to reconsider your implication that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not doing its job. The high level of transparency around the operation and maintenance of nuclear plants is abused when normal events are stripped of their context and made to seem like signs that the regulatory system is failing when it is in fact working well. There are at least three recent examples of this.
First, the recent leak of tritium from Indian Point demonstrated both the efficacy of nuclear regulations and the overall safety of nuclear energy and yet was widely interpreted as demonstrating the opposite. Tritium is a naturally occurring, mildly radioactive isotope. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the safe limit of tritiated water at 20,000 picocuries per liter. The worst leak of tritium in US history was from Braidwood nuclear plant in Illinois, and it was of 1,600 picocuries per liter. The level of tritium that made its way to drinking water from the Indian Point leak was effectively zero picocuries per liter.
Second, last December, Indian Point shut down automatically after equipment detected external transformer failures and minor damage to transmission lines, just as it was designed to do. Here again, rather than being treated as a sign that the system worked as it was designed, the incident was treated as a sign of an underlying problem.
Third, the recent discovery of cracked baffle bolts was the outcome of NRC-mandated inspections that are part of the plant’s regular management program. That program is designed to find and repair degraded equipment before a breakdown can occur. As such, the program worked.
If New York is to make progress in decarbonization goals, it cannot abandon nuclear power, including Indian Point. Failure to protect New York’s largest source of carbon-free electricity would negate the benefits of increased renewable energy. Nuclear remains the safest way to make reliable clean energy according to every major scientific review, and yet it is treated as though the opposite were the case.
Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
John Asafu-Adjaye, PhD, Senior Fellow, Institute of Economic Affairs, Ghana, Associate Professor of Economics, The University of Queensland, Australia
and 32 other leading voices on climate and the environment
[This letter has been shortened from its original version]