Nuclear, Reactors

Report says closing NY nuclear power plant feasible, but difficult

7 June 2006 — It is technically feasible to replace the energy generated by New York’s Indian Point nuclear power plant if it closes in coming years, but political, regulatory, and financial hurdles would make doing so difficult, according to a new report from the National Academies’ National Research Council.

“There are no insurmountable technical barriers to replacing the energy lost by shutting down Indian Point, but we are less confident that government and financial mechanisms are in place to facilitate the timely implementation of alternatives,” said Lawrence T. Papay, a consultant in La Jolla, Calif., and member of the National Academy of Engineering who chaired the committee that wrote the report.

The Research Council report was requested by Congress after concerns were raised that the plant could be the target of a terrorist attack; one of the planes hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, flew past it. The report does not comment on Indian Point’s vulnerability to attack or whether it should be closed.

The Indian Point Energy Center includes two nuclear reactors on the banks of the Hudson River about 40 miles north of New York City. It supplies almost one-quarter of the electricity delivered to the city and the lower Hudson Valley.

The committee examined options for replacing the energy produced by Indian Point if its reactors were shut down in 2013 and 2015, when their operating licenses expire, or if the closures took place sooner, in 2008 and 2010. If early planning and sufficient resources were dedicated to replacing lost capacity and meeting expected increases in demand, the reactors could be retired in 2013 and 2015 without causing a major disruption, the committee concluded.

The shutdown would require new energy sources and reduced demand for electricity that add up to about 5,000 megawatts — 2,000 to replace the lost production of Indian Point and the balance to meet projected increases in demand and to compensate for other possible power plant closings. Shutting down the reactors sooner, beginning in 2008, would be much more difficult, the committee said, noting that it would take an unprecedented level of cooperation among government leaders and agencies. An earlier closing would not allow much time for building appropriate replacement sources of energy. If the capacity of replacement power sources is inadequate, the reliability of the state’s power system would be threatened, possibly resulting in wide-scale power outages.

The report emphasizes that the issues associated with the potential shutdown of Indian Point are complex and intertwined with broader energy issues. Even with Indian Point still operating in 2008, for example, southeastern New York would require 500 more megawatts of new generating capacity than is now under construction in the state. And if Indian Point were closed, New York’s current government mechanisms and regulatory policies may limit its ability to address the consequences. Closing the plant would require a long-term, integrated strategy that may include changes to state law and policies, such as reauthorization of the Article X statute, which was designed to facilitate the environmental review and siting of new power plants.

New power plants, improvements in electricity transmission and energy efficiency and distributed generation could contribute to replacing the energy lost by the closure of Indian Point, the report says. Most new power plants are likely to be fueled with natural gas. However, the committee expressed concern over this increasing reliance on natural gas because new sources of the fuel, such as imported liquefied natural gas, may be required. It noted that constructing new power plants upstate may be easier than doing so in New York City or Westchester County, but building upstate would require upgraded transmission capacity as well.

Electricity from new plants is almost certain to be more costly than that from Indian Point, the committee said. However, given the state’s new regulatory structure for pricing electricity, the committee could not accurately estimate the increase in the cost of electricity to consumers that might result from the plant’s closure. In addition, to the extent that the reactors are replaced with plants that burn fossil fuel, emissions of carbon dioxide will be higher, complicating efforts by New York to reduce greenhouse gases under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

The report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter.