What’s Really Behind the Indian Point Nuclear Deal?

There was general celebration among sensible-thinking people on January 9 when New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, signed a deal that would see the twin reactors at the Indian Point Nuclear Generating Station in Buchanan, NY, close by 2021.

Indian Point, on the shores of the Hudson River, has been plagued by safety problems for years, sits on two fault lines — putting it at high risk of earthquake — and was identified as a potential target by the 9/11 attackers who flew over the plant while taking flight training lessons.

In 2004, the group Riverkeeper commissioned physicist, Dr. Edwin Lyman, now with Union of Concerned Scientists, to analyze the outcome of a terrorist attack on Indian Point, a report entitled Chernobyl On The Hudson? Lyman calculated that, depending on the weather that day,  an attack on Indian Point “could result in as many as 44,000 near-term deaths from acute radiation syndrome or as many as 518,000 long-term deaths from cancer among individuals within fifty miles of the plant.”

Clearly, it’s high time Indian Point, less than 30 miles from Manhattan, was closed. It is equally obvious that 2021 is not soon enough, tempering the joy among those who have worked for decades to get the plant shut down.

Disappointingly, however, the Cuomo administration is at the same time handing out a massive bailout to four upstate nuclear reactors — two at Nine Mile Point and the single units at FitzPatrick and Ginna. FitzPatrick is the same GE Mark I boiling water reactor design as those that exploded and melted down at Fukushima. If we are going to shut down nuclear reactors,  the 30 of this design still operating in the U.S. should be top of the list.

Cuomo is a self-proclaimed advocate for renewable energy. Why then would he shoot its development in the foot by handing out $7.6 billion in state subsidies to keep decrepit and dangerous nuclear plants going upstate while shuttering Indian Point?

In a July 22, 2016 submission to the New York Public Service Commission (NYPSC), four advocacy groups noted that this massive bailout effectively values each of the 2,090 nuclear jobs at the three nuclear sites at $303,000 per year per worker, almost three times what these workers are currently paid.

All of this naturally provokes a frustrating level of cynicism about Cuomo’s motives. Is he really a green energy champion or just another pragmatic politician concerned only with (1) getting re-elected in 2018 and (2) raising campaign funds?

In the last gubernatorial election in 2014, Cuomo predictably ran strong in the affluent counties in and around New York City, including Westchester, where Indian Point is located. In wealthy, downstate counties, Cuomo easily defeated his Republican rival, Rob Astorino, by largely resounding margins.

In upstate Oswego county where Nine Mile Point and Fitzpatrick are located, and Ontario county, home to Ginna, Cuomo struggled, narrowly winning only one district containing parts of Oswego County while losing the others to Astorino.

Already in re-election mode, Cuomo’s fundraising is well underway. By midsummer he had already amassed a $14 million war chest. Around 85 percent of this haul comes from donors giving $10,000 or more according to research released last July by Politico. Most of these donors are in the real estate business, and, not surprisingly, are not exactly rushing to build projects in the depressed rustbelt of Oswego and Ontario counties.

For example, companies linked to the Durst Organization have already donated $200,000 to Cuomo according to Politico. Durst has three projects in or near Manhattan and one in nearby Dutchess County. Similarly, RXR has construction projects from Brooklyn to Stamford, CT and has contributed $160,000.  Add to these hefty donations from hedge fund managers and you start to get the picture.

So the money is in Manhattan and the surrounding affluent counties. Cuomo is vulnerable at ballot boxes in the farther reaches of the state, (excepting Erie County, home to Buffalo and where he won in a landslide). Making a show of “saving jobs” in these poorer areas could potentially translate into political capital.

Of course it’s an illusion, because propping up jobs at three times their value is a costly piece of lip service. Comments submitted in April 22, 2016 to the NYPSC by the Alliance for a Green Economy and Nuclear Information and Resource Service show that far more secure, long-term jobs are already being created in the renewable energy sector in the upstate region. And some nuclear jobs could still be retained while the plants are being decommissioned.

“The development of green industry, such as the Solar City factory in Buffalo, the 1366 Technologies factory near Rochester, and the Soraa LED lightbulb factory in Syracuse, NY” will collectively “create 6,420 long-term jobs” with just $937 million in state support, said the two groups.

It is in any case just a matter of time before these flawed, aging and uneconomic nuclear plants either close down or melt down. Where will the nuclear workforce go then? Is Cuomo more willing to risk a radiological disaster in low-income Oswego County than 30 miles from Manhattan? Clearly he can win the election without those upstate voters as the 2014 results showed.

Oswego and Ontario counties may have been conned for now into thinking they have been thrown a job-saving lifeline rather than a potential death sentence.  But while the bailout has been approved, it can still be challenged. That’s an essential strategy if we are to pre-empt a potential Fukushima on the Great Lakes.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.