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No Nukes + No Fracking = More Coal? Indian Point Debate Highlights Green Quandary

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Cold Spring, New York, my lovely Hudson River home, has long been a hotbed of environmental activism. In 1962, the utility Consolidated Edison announced plans to carve a power plant out of stately Storm King Mountain, just across the Hudson from Cold Spring. Locals filed lawsuits against the plant, arguing that it would devastate the landscape. In part because of the Storm King case, in 1969 Congress passed a law requiring builders to take environmental impact into consideration before beginning large projects. In 1980 Con Ed finally abandoned its Storm King plan.

Lately, my green neighbors have fought two other perceived threats: nuclear power and fracking. People in this area have long wanted to shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which squats on the Hudson in Buchanan, New York, less than 10 miles south of Cold Spring and just 35 miles north of downtown New York City. In fact, today, October 15, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is holding a hearing on whether to extend the license of Indian Point for 20 more years. Among the opponents of the extension is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

For a long time, I shared my neighbors' concerns about Indian Point, especially after September 11, 2001, when a jet flew right over Indian Point before striking the World Trade Center. What would have happened if the terrorists had flown the plane into Indian Point? I also worried that proliferation of nuclear power would complicate efforts to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons. After President Barack Obama announced a plan in 2010 to support construction of new nuclear plants, I slammed him in an online essay.

I changed my mind about the risks and benefits of nukes after hearing from nuclear advocates, including Gyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World (Knopf, 2007). Cravens persuaded me that we need nuclear power—which has not killed a single person in the U.S.--to help us reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and especially coal. I summarized a few of her findings in a 2010 post:

"The waste from coal-burning plants is much greater in volume and more harmful than from nuclear generators. If you, as an average American, got all your electricity from nuclear plants, you'd generate one kilogram of nuclear waste during your lifetime, enough to fit in a soda can. If you got all your electricity from coal, you'd generate almost 70 tons of waste. Coal plants emit far more radioactive materials than nuclear plants do; each year a 1,000-megawatt coal plant disperses about 27 metric tons of uranium, thorium and other radioactive substances. Coals plants also emit mercury and other toxins, in addition of course to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. An estimated 24,000 Americans die prematurely per annum because of pollution from coal plants; in China, the number is 400,000."

The earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan's Fukushima plants in March 2011 rocked my confidence in nuclear energy. The disaster showed that no matter how seemingly safe nuclear power becomes, we can never totally rule out the possibility of catastrophic, black swan events. But as I explained in The Chronicle of Higher Education last year, I'm still clinging to the nuclear bandwagon. If we shut down Indian Point and other nuclear power plants, we will become even more dependent—at least for the foreseeable future--on fossil fuels, which, in addition to spewing out toxic pollutants, also contribute to global warming.

Germany illustrates the problem. After Fukushima, German announced that it would close its nuclear power plants by 2022. But to meet its energy needs, Germany has had to build new fossil-fuel plants, including one of the biggest coal facilities in the world. As The Washington Post reported, "Germany’s dilemma shows how difficult it is to balance competing environmental priorities, even with vast resources and popular support for the efforts."

That brings me to fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting fluids into deep rock deposits to force natural gas to the surface. Environmentalists in my hometown and throughout New York are as fiercely opposed to fracking as they are to nuclear power. New York State contains abundant natural gas reserves, but environmentalists fear that fracking will permanently contaminate water aquifers. Governor Cuomo has just extended a moratorium on fracking while regulators gather more data on the technology.

I'm as conflicted over fracking as I am over nuclear energy. But here's the quandary. As Scientific American's David Biello points out in a podcast, "all parties agree" that shutting down Indian Point will lead to "an increased role for natural gas." If fracking is also prohibited or severely curtailed, we'll be even more dependent on coal. As I pointed out in a post last June, combustion of natural gas results in negligible emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury compounds, two major pollutants from coal plants, and only half as much carbon dioxide as coal.

So what should we do? My fellow greens, I understand your concerns about nukes and fracking. But if you shun both of these options, we'll be stuck—barring some breakthrough in solar, wind or other energy technologies--with the worst alternative of all: deadly, dirty coal. Surely you don't want that.

Photo: Columbiaenvironmentallaw.org

Clarification: My post quotes David Biello of Scientific American saying that "all parties agree" that a shutdown of Indian Point would lead to "an increased role for natural gas." Kate Slusark, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council, emailed me the following comment on Biello's remark. "The statement came from Biello’s piece about a recent report prepared for NRDC and Riverkeeper [another environmental organization] by Synapse (an independent economics consulting firm), titled: "Indian Point Replacement Analysis: A Clean Energy Roadmap--A Proposal for Replacing the Nuclear Plant with Clean, Sustainable Energy Resources." To be clear, our report recommends replacing 100 percent of Indian Point’s power with energy efficiency and renewable power resources, and provides the policy roadmap for how to do that. It does not say that increased natural gas generation will have a role; nor do we believe that it must." You can find the NRDC/Riverkeeper report at http://www.synapse-energy.com/Downloads/SynapseReport.2012-10.NRDC.Indian-Point-Replacement-Study.12-047.pdf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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