Tonight at 11 p.m., operators at the Indian Point Energy Center on the Hudson River south of the Highlands will do something that environmentalists have been trying to accomplish for nearly 60 years: They will shut down the nuclear plant.
The plant’s third and final nuclear reactor will be deactivated. (The first had to be shut down in 1974 for lack of an emergency cooling system; the second was shut down in April 2020.) In the following days, it will be opened and the fuel rods inside placed in the Unit 3 spent fuel pool.
Once the reactor has been emptied, Entergy, the company that has owned the plant for 20 years, will submit a letter to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) known as a Certificate of Permanent Cessation of Operations. It will state that all reactors have been emptied of nuclear fuel, and that it would now be impossible for the plant to be restarted.
It will be the end of a facility that has provided thousands of jobs, millions in tax revenues and hundreds of millions of megawatt hours of power, including up to 25 percent of the power used by New York City and Westchester County.
It will not be the end of the controversies.
The fate of Indian Point may have been sealed by a peace treaty.
In December 1980, an agreement was reached over the only power plant in the Hudson Valley more controversial than Indian Point: the unbuilt Con Edison plant that was proposed for the north face of Storm King Mountain. The decades-long fight to prevent the plant is credited with helping birth the modern American environmental movement and for providing the foundation of environmental law.
The treaty reached between the State of New York, Con Edison and environmental groups such as Scenic Hudson, Clearwater and Riverkeeper did more than bring the Storm King battle to an end. As part of dropping its plans to build a plant at Storm King, Con Edison won provisions for a plant that was already up and running: Indian Point, which had been in the crosshairs of the emboldened environmental groups. They had taken note of the operational troubles that were plaguing the young plant, how the American public’s appetite for nuclear power had soured in the wake of the partial meltdown in 1979 at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the 100,000 fish that it estimated were being sucked into the plant and killed every week.
It was this fear of massive fish destruction that helped sink public support for another Hudson River plant that was never constructed: the Cementon Nuclear Power Plant that was proposed near Athens in Greene County in the 1970s. Residents heard about the decimated fish populations downriver at Buchanan and wanted no part of it.
The environmental groups demanded cooling towers be built at Indian Point to stop the intake of river water and aquatic life. Con Edison argued that it would be too costly. But as part of the treaty to save Storm King, the groups agreed to postpone the cooling tower fight.
“We agreed to allow additional information to be gathered on the Indian Point plant to determine the damage that was being done,” recalled Paul Gallay, executive director of Riverkeeper. “If that information showed that the plant was harming the Hudson, Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson and Clearwater would be able to go back and object and try and force the plant to install the cooling towers.”
“Here is proof,” wrote The New York Times’ editorial board on the signing of the treaty, “that negotiation can produce better results than prolonged litigation.”
Twenty years later, the environmental groups thought they had the evidence they needed to again push for cooling towers at Indian Point. But the legal case took a back seat to sudden threats from above.
The groups were dealing with a new entity: Entergy, a Louisiana energy company that had purchased Indian Point from Con Ed, which owned the Reactor 1 (which was inoperative) and Reactor 2, and the New York Power Authority, which owned Reactor 3.
Entergy took down the fence that was separating Reactors 2 and 3 and worked on making the plant whole. They had not even owned the plant for a year when a hijacked commercial airliner flew overhead on Sept. 11, 2001, on course for the World Trade Center.
“Had the plane gone down 60 seconds sooner [into Indian Point], it would have breached the fuel pools with all of their radioactive waste and could have caused a fuel-pool fire,” said Manna Jo Greene, Clearwater’s environmental director. She said the consequences could have resembled those of the 2011 disaster at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan, which led to the evacuation of more than 100,000 people, some of whom have still not been allowed to return.
It was not an idle fear. The 9/11 Commission would later reveal that the hijackers had considered Indian Point as a target. Subsequent military operations in Afghanistan uncovered detailed plans of U.S. nuclear power plants in captured Al Qaeda strongholds, although for which plants has not been revealed.
By order of the NRC, Indian Point spent $150 million on security improvements and began regular counterterrorism drills in which the plant’s security force repelled groups of attackers. Although the plant’s security overcame the simulated terrorist threat every time, it was less successful in thwarting a mylar balloon that got caught in the wires of a substation in 2015, which led to one of the reactors temporarily shutting down.
A review of the plant’s evacuation plans in 2003, ordered by then-Gov. George Pataki (a resident of Garrison) and overseen by former Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Witt, found the plant’s plans to be wildly improbable, failing to take into account increased terrorism risks, the high population density of the area, basic human behavior in the advent of a wide-scale threat and the feasibility of hundreds of thousands of people being able to calmly evacuate via Route 9 during a nuclear emergency.
“That’s obvious to anyone who’s ever sat in traffic on Route 9,” said Gallay, calling the evacuation plan “a paper plan for a paper emergency.” Pataki refused to certify the evacuation plan unless significant changes were made.
Yet the plan, defended in court by former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was approved on the federal level. Michael Brown, the director of FEMA at the time, who would rise to infamy a few years later for the role his agency played in mismanaging the response to Hurricane Katrina, defended the federal approval by noting that the high population density of the area “does not create additional challenges, other than an educational challenge of really communicating well to a denser population about what their role is.”
As the years wore on, so did the problems. There were corroded bolts on the reactors, radioactive groundwater contamination discovered on site and a transformer explosion in 2010 that sent oil into the Hudson.
The month before Reactor 3 was shut down by that wayward balloon, it was shut down by a transformer fire that jettisoned 3,000 gallons of cooling fluid into the river. The month after the balloon, Reactor 3 was shut down yet again after a water pump failure. A report by the NRC found that the nuclear power plant in the country that was most at-risk to earthquakes was not in California, but was Indian Point, which was built close to a fault line.
Then, in 2010, 30 years after the “Peace Treaty on the Hudson,” the state ruled that Indian Point was in violation of the Clean Water Act for its constant destruction of marine life and daily contamination of the river. Bringing the plant to compliance would have meant constructing large cooling towers, which were estimated to cost $1 billion and would have closed the plant for nearly a year.
“That was not feasible from an economic perspective,” said Jerry Nappi, a spokesperson for Entergy. “No existing nuclear plant had ever been retrofit with cooling towers.”
But Nappi says it was not the Clean Water Act that ultimately did the plant in. The culprit lay to the west, underneath the ground in Pennsylvania. “The advent of fracked gas, which impacts this area, primarily from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, drove down wholesale electricity prices greatly and made the continued operation unsustainable from an economic perspective,” he said.
It was a bitter irony that fracked gas, which environmentalists had fought to keep out of New York because of the environmental damage that is done when the gas is extracted, was what drove Entergy to approach the state and Riverkeeper in 2016 to discuss closing the plant down. The announcement was made in January 2017.
Gallay notes that the four-year window has given the state, and the renewable energy sector, ample time to prepare. “There’s been careful plans made for the better part of the decade for the de-continuation of operations at Indian Point, for the replacement of Indian Point’s power generation and now, most recently, for the prompt and safe decommissioning of Indian Point,” he said.
“They made an economic decision,” said Assembly Member Sandy Galef, whose district includes both Indian Point, which is about 10 miles from her home, and the Highlands. “You can’t fault them for that.”
Galef has had an extensive knowledge of the inner workings at Indian Point for decades. Shortly after she was elected to the state Assembly in 1992, a steam generator failure at Indian Point made her realize that part of her job was going to involve quickly becoming an expert on nuclear power plants. She began attending every NRC meeting she could, even after the NRC yelled at her for tape recording a meeting. “I still have a couple of inches of files in my basement that explain how steam generators work,” she said.
Galef said she was never someone who was in favor of shutting down the plant outright, even as the plant’s age required her ever-increasing scrutiny and oversight. “My focus was always on safety, whatever the problems were,” she said. “But we always knew, at some point it was going to close, because you can only replace so much.”
The shutdown is bittersweet for Galef, who emphasizes that the plant supplied thousands of people with well-paying, demanding and highly skilled jobs filled by many people who, like Galef, ultimately had enough faith in the plant’s overall safety that they chose to live near it, working long hours to keep its aging infrastructure operating as safely as they could. There were the tens of millions in annual tax revenue that sustained the surrounding communities. And she saw marked improvements in the plant when Entergy took over.
“They’ll be remembered as a very good neighbor,” she said of Entergy. “Some people won’t view them as a good neighbor, but they’ve been a good neighbor.”
She has a much different opinion of the company that is coming in to replace them. “I haven’t been a fan of Holtec,” she said.
Out of the frying pan
Greene, the environmental director at Clearwater, has an even blunter assessment.
“Holtec has a long history of bribery, malfeasance and lying to public officials,” she alleged about the company that is one public hearing away from taking over the license at Indian Point to handle the decommissioning of the plant. “So much so that they were barred from doing business from the World Bank and the Tennessee Valley Authority.”
Greene has been a leader in the fight to shut down Indian Point for decades, but Holtec’s imminent takeover of the plant and its thousands of tons of radioactive fuel has meant that this day, which she had looked forward to for so long, brings little solace.
“If the license transfer was going to a reliable decommissioning company with a good history and long experience, I would feel more relieved,” she said.
Holtec may be new to decommissioning but that doesn’t mean it’s not qualified, says Patrick O’Brien, a Holtec representative. The company is decommissioning the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey and the Pilgrim Energy plant in Massachusetts, and is also going through the license transfer process to decommission the Palisades nuclear power plant in Michigan.
“The NRC does a very thorough process and they found that, with Pilgrim’s case, with Oyster’s case and now with Indian Point, that we have the technical and financial abilities to complete the decommissioning,” he said. “That’s why they allowed the license transfer. The key thing to note when you look at our projects that are underway: They’re both on schedule and under budget.”
The New York State attorney general was not convinced and sued the NRC in January. A few weeks ago, the state, the NRC, Entergy, Holtec and Riverkeeper announced a settlement that would allow the license transfer to go through. A public hearing on the settlement is scheduled for May 13.
The settlement addresses many of the state’s concerns with Holtec, including financial assurances that it will be able to complete the job by requiring a minimum balance of $400 million in the decommissioning trust fund for the next 10 years, allowing more on-site scrutiny from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to ensure the cleanup, including of the contaminated groundwater, is being done thoroughly, and the establishment of a Decommissioning Oversight Board.
“I would venture that the financial assurance is more than any other plant has,” said O’Brien.
Two years ago, while researching the nuclear power industry, Michael Conrad was surprised at how little had been done to document the duties and daily working life of plant workers. To counter that, he founded the Indian Point Heritage Project, which archives oral histories and photos.
Most studies of the nuclear industry focus on its defense applications or ongoing political battles rather than the civilians who operated and maintained the plants, Conrad writes at the project’s website (ipheritage.org). The project, he said, “aims to correct those research imbalances by centralizing the worker.”
Conrad, who is the executive officer in charge of business, accreditation and facility operations at Clarkson University-Beacon, says he was inspired to found the project while researching his doctoral thesis on the concrete aggregate industry of the Hudson Valley and Long Island. He discovered a collection of recorded interviews done with workers who labored during the 1930s to the 1970s.
“These priceless recordings are now our only vantage points into the work and life of aggregate workers,” he notes. The records that companies usually save “tend to highlight management decisions and labor relations.”
With Indian Point about to be decommissioned, Conrad decided to undertake an oral history project with its workers, including those in operations, maintenance, radiation protection, engineering, administration, training and security. He is being assisted by Brian Vangor, who has worked at Indian Point since 1980, most recently as a supervisor in the Dry Cask Storage Group.
The project has posted 17 interviews, has another six scheduled and hopes to eventually complete 40, Conrad said on Wednesday (April 28). It is funded by Entergy, which owns the plant.
The agreement does not address everything. Greene is still concerned about Holtec’s plan to ship the radioactive waste to its storage facilities in New Mexico and Texas, in predominantly Native American and Latinx communities that have already borne the brunt of the atomic age by their proximity to nuclear testing and uranium mining.
“It’s an environmental justice issue,” she said. It’s also a logistical issue as she worried that local roads, bridges and overpasses won’t be able to support the massive weight of the radioactive waste-filled casks as they’re transported across the country. “It’s a tractor-trailer in front, a tractor-trailer in the back and a large flatbed that can only go 3 to 5 mph,” she said, adding that she had urged Rep. Antonio Delgado, whose district includes the Catskills and parts of the Hudson Valley, to take these needs into account when working on President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill.
There are, however, mechanisms in place to make sure these concerns continue to be addressed. And they’ve been at it for years.
Everyone on board
As part of the 2017 agreement to shut down Indian Point, the state created an Indian Point Closure Task Force. Tom Congdon, the chair of the task force and the executive deputy of the state Department of Public Service, said that it has been meeting on a regular basis since 2017 and is staffed by representatives from almost every state department; every level of government, from the school boards affected by Indian Point’s closure to representatives from the offices of Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand; and even workers from the plant.
Many of the bills that have been passed in the past few years affecting Indian Point grew out of this task force, as members discussed needs to be met and problems on the horizon. It is thanks to the task force that about 300 of the plant’s current staff of around 750 employees will be staying on to work with Holtec on the decommissioning. Another 170 will relocate down south to continue working with Entergy, and about 180 of the remaining employees are eligible for retirement.
The structures housing the spent fuel will now be taxed. And for the next several years the state will also be providing financial assistance to the jurisdictions who will no longer be collecting $32 million in annual tax revenue from the plant, starting with 80 percent of the usual tax amount next year, and then decreasing by 10 percent each year. “It’s a more gradual phase-out of the lost revenue,” said Congdon, and buys the municipalities time to come up with new sources of tax revenue.
But one of the first things the task force addressed in 2017 is the issue that will be on the minds of many New Yorkers today: Will the lights go off tonight at 11 p.m.?
They will not. In late 2017, the New York Independent System Operator, the state entity that manages the power grid, issued a Generator Deactivation Assessment, a report that NYISO is required to write whenever any power plant, no matter what source of energy it uses, announces its intention to shut down. The purpose of the report is to figure out if the retirement of a plant will result in any reliability issues to the grid. If NYISO determines that it would, they then have the authority to keep the plant open until the issues can be resolved.
As NYISO explained to the closure task force, as long as two out of three power projects that were then in the works (the upgrade of the Bayonne Energy Center in New Jersey; the construction of the Cricket Valley Energy Center in Dover, New York; and the CPV Valley Energy Plant in Middletown) were completed, there would be no reliability issues. As NYISO declared in subsequent reports, since all three projects have since been completed, Indian Point was free to shut down.
However, all three plants burn natural gas, producing much more air pollution and greenhouse gasses than Indian Point ever did. And saying they “replaced” Indian Point isn’t quite accurate. The grid is constantly in flux, and it’s almost impossible at any point to say where the power in your home is coming from at that exact moment. Since 2017, New York has brought online enough renewable energy and efficiency savings to also “replace” Indian Point’s power, with much more on the way. It’s part of an ambitious plan to decarbonize 70 percent of New York’s energy grid by 2030, and reach zero emissions by 2040.
The state will have to get there without the plant that had been producing nearly carbon-free energy for 60 years, even as it grapples with the damages the plant did to the river flowing by it and the soil underneath it. The sun may set tonight at Indian Point, but the Hudson Valley will be in its shadow for many years to come.