Whilst California’s Pacific Gas and Electric Company prepares to shutter the Golden State’s sole remaining nuclear plant, a New York Public Service Commission vote this Monday could authorize a program that would keep the Empire State’s nuclear facilities firing into the next decade. Undeterred by the chagrin of many environmentalists, policy makers and noted climate scientists alike are hoping to see the PSC vote in favor of Gov. Cuomo’s Clean Energy Standard proposal, which would not only make New York state’s clean energy goals feasible via Zero-Emissions Credits (ZECs) for nuclear power, but would radiate a message throughout the nation and beyond that nuclear is a realistic carbon-emissions free energy source like wind and solar, and that New York state is one truly committed to realistic climate action.
That is, committed to realistic climate action and solid evidence. Though the progressive flock abounds with those that see nuclear energy as a foe to a green future—see, for instance, former Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’s strong opposition to the electricity source—many climate scientists have concluded that nuclear is a best-bet solution for lowering the United States’s greenhouse gas emissions. This scholarly support has been on full display leading up to Monday’s vote. Famed climate scientist and former NASA employee James Hansen, of Columbia University—alongside an extremely accomplished cohort of fellow environmental scientists, physicists, and scholars from varying other fields—penned a letter urging the PSC to vote in favor of the subsidies. As the letter notes, the signees are “moved by a growing scientific and environmental consensus that nuclear power must play a central role in fighting climate change.”
Experts’ support for nuclear subsidies has done little to deter detractors. Despite overwhelming support for nuclear energy in the scientific community, many progressive environmental organizations zealously oppose nuclear facilities. Greenpeace, for one, has aligned itself stringently against the nuclear industry. As per that questionable but influential organization’s page on nuclear power, they are committed to fight “vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity.” However, looking into such stances reveals a system of beliefs based on false principles and downright sneaky tactics.
One such sneaky tactic is the comparison between nuclear reactors and their mushroom-cloud inducing cousins. Alas, nuclear bombs are designed with detonation and destruction in mind, and require an ornate configuration of components extremely distinct from the workings of a nuclear power plant, meaning there is no chance for a nuclear reactor to explode in a fashion similar to nuclear weapons. Another sneaky tactic—and certainly an honest fear for many—is Greenpeace and similar environmental activist groups’ talk of Chernobyl-style disasters. Thankfully, such disasters are impossible here in the U.S. since, as the Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information has pointed out, the type of reactor used by the Chernobyl plat has never been constructed in the states. Worth noting, too, is that none of the Fukushima-related deaths were determined to be the result of radiation poisoning.
If they cannot succeed at pinning proponents on dangers related to the production of nuclear energy, anti-nuclear activists often turn to its byproduct: waste. Nevertheless, their criticisms once again fall short—as opposed to being a damning blow to the argument for nuclear power, the problem of nuclear waste is miniscule at worst. For one, the next generation of nuclear reactors currently in development—known as Generation IV reactors—will significantly cut down on the already minute amount of high-level waste (the really dangerous stuff) via methods of reuse. Even taking the current generation of reactors into consideration, a seventeen year-old paper, written by waste management experts on behalf of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency, concluded that geological disposal—basically, burying waste underground, which would only be necessary for the small amount of high-level waste (as opposed to the low and intermediate-level waste)—is feasibly safe and secure.
It is clear, then, that rather than presenting an ever-looming threat of disaster or producing uncontrollable amounts of waste, what nuclear power plants do allow is safe, greenhouse gas emission-free energy production—and at a cost-effective level.
Activists pine to replace nuclear reactors with wind turbines and solar panels, but in practice, as environmental policy expert Michael Shellenberger made clear in a recent piece for the New York Times, natural gas is almost always the fuel source ready to fill the gap in energy production when a nuclear plant closes, in turn spewing more carbon into the atmosphere. Shellenberger further pointes out that solar power, often trumpeted alongside wind as an ideal source of energy (and already in more supply during the daylight hours in California than the state’s grid can use), will be unable to address the newfound energy needs once the Diablo Canyon plant closes since electricity is in highest demand during the evening, when solar is insufficient for meeting power needs.
Monday marks New York’s opportunity to avoid the mistake California and other states are making through the closure—or by accepting the closure—of their remaining nuclear power plants.
New York is currently home to four nuclear facilities (providing over 30% of New York state’s electricity), one of which, Indian Point—located a mere eighty miles from Manhattan—may close due to personal weariness from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (despite the fact that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission deemed the plant safe in June). Entergy Corp. owns the second plant, FitzPatrick (Oswego County), while Exelon Corp. owns the Nile Mile Point (Oswego County) and Gina (Wayne County) power plants. As Time has reported, like many nuclear plants across the nation, low natural gas prices and low-electricity demand have turned New York’s reactors into money-losing operations. As such, Exelon Co. recently delivered the dire news to the state that if they cannot receive subsidies by the first of September, they will be unable to continue operating their two plants, or undergo a planned purchase of the FitzPatrick plant, which Entergy Corp. is committed to leaving behind.
If the Clean Energy Standard proposal receives a yes vote on Monday, the PSC would take the wise and well-validated move to designate nuclear power a clean energy source and award nuclear facilities $17.48 per megawatt-hours (MWH) in ZECs, rising every two years until it reached $29.15 in 2029 under a 12-year contract (as Syracuse.com reports, if wholesale power prices exceed $39 per MWH, under the plan, the nuclear subsidies would decrease by the appropriate amount). There is more to the vote than an environmental incentive: through subsidizing, and in turn buoying, New York’s nuclear facilities, the state would secure thousands of much-needed upstate jobs, tens of millions in taxes, and billions in financial contributions to the local economy. For all of this, the PSC has estimated that the new energy program would result in a cost increase of just $1 per-month for the average household upstate.
The unfounded fears of progressives around the nation have lead to an indifference towards rescuing the country’s much-needed but dwindling nuclear facilities. Despite the progressive crusade against nuclear energy and propagation of misleading claims, nuclear power remains a safe and clean source of electricity, and a necessity if we are to continue to wane off of damaging fossil fuels.
Our nation’s most heavily populated state, California, has proven itself inept at realistically dealing with the climate crisis by allowing the closure of its final nuclear plant. Many other states are following suit. New Yorkers should encourage their state to be a beacon of reason and lead the country, and world, in establishing smart climate policy by adopting the Clean Energy Standard. Doing so would set the standard in making nuclear power operations feasible and give credence to New York’s venerable designation, Excelsior State.