Water Security and The Closure of Indian Point

Water is vital to the global energy industry, from start to finish. From drilling for extraction to generating electricity, to pulling river or sea water to service cooling towers, the industrial energy complex could not exist without water. According to United Nations Water, “roughly 75% of all industrial water withdrawals are used for energy production, 90% of global power generation is water intensive. Power plant cooling is responsible for 43% of total freshwater withdrawals in Europe… [and] nearly 50% in the United States.”According to the National Academies for Sciences, Engineering and Medicines, nuclear power uses the most water while the solar industry uses the least.            

Much to the delight of many who have been in opposition to the facility for years, Westchester County’s Indian Point Nuclear power plant is closing one of two units in April 2020 with the second to be shuttered for good within a year. Entergy, who purchased the plant from Consolidated Edison, cited a decline in energy prices as the primary reason for closure, but the site has been a sore spot for the Hudson River community for decades. Indian Point has had a long history of concerns surrounding it, from the fact that it sits on two seismic fault lines, to its outdated infrastructure, to the contamination of the groundwater, to violating the Clean Water Act, and being charged with causing “ecological imbalances”due to the thermal pollution incurred from the facility, there has been a long battle between the company, the state and the environmentalists who protect the Hudson and all who dwell in her. Entergy has sold the facility to Holtec, a company that claims to have vast experience in the decommissioning business, even though, according to Victoria Leung “its entire nuclear ‘fleet’ was acquired less than a year ago.”

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), New York state draws up to nine billion gallons of water every day for energy use, putting it just behind Texas and Florida as the top water users in the energy field in the United States.  Only Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina and Alabama have a similar water intake to New York State.

Almost one third of the state’s water for energy intake goes to the Indian Point facility, directly from the Hudson River and back again, albeit in an altered state. Studies have found that the Indian Point “power plant uses the water of the Hudson River to cool [its] two…reactors, daily. Two million gallons of water per minute are circulated throughout the plant then back into the river. The water is pumped back into river ‘20 to 30 degrees’ warmer than before and ‘allowed [to be] radioactive.’ The two reactors combined take in about ‘2.5 billion gallons of water a day, or more than twice the average daily water consumption of all of New York City.’”

The plant’s water problems go back decades, but just in this century: in 2003, New York state said Entergy was going to “have to do more to reduce the impact of the plant’s cooling water intake system on aquatic organisms. The state and environmental groups have said the cooling system kills over a billion fish, fish eggs and larvae each year.”  In 2010, the power plant was denied a permit renewal as “New York State…ruled that outmoded cooling technology at the Indian Point nuclear power plant kills so many Hudson River fish, and consumes and contaminates so much water, that it violates the Clean Water Act.” New York state wanted the owners to replace the outdated cooling towers for ones more keeping with current standards, to which Entergy refused, saying “that cooling towers would cost up to $2 billion and could not be built before 2029.”

Another issue that has plagued the Indian Point facility is that of contamination of the groundwater. In addition to the leak in 2005, February 2016, they had to report to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Committee (USNRC) that “Samples from the plant’s groundwater monitoring wells show concentrations of tritium 80 percent higher than when the leak was initially reported Saturday, according to New York Daily News. Entergy Corporation, which operates the plant, said that the recent samples collected from the monitoring wells found levels of tritium at 14.8 million picocuries per liter,” which means that the one well had “radioactivity increased nearly 65,000 percent”

After years of licenses and permit renewals being declined, the company decided to close the power plant down, asking the USNRC to up their closure dates by a decade. The power plant settled its case with New York state, with Entergy’s press release noting that they were able to get some legal problems resolved, although they still have a hefty investment to make to the community before leaving for good:

“Under the agreement, Indian Point Unit 2 will shut down by April 30, 2020 and Unit 3 by April 30, 2021. Other key terms include:

  • Coastal Zone Management Act Consistency Certification from New York State;
  • Water Quality Certificate and water discharge permits from New York State;
  • Agreement by New York State and primary intervenor Riverkeeper to withdraw legal challenges to license renewal;
  • Entergy will request that the NRC shorten the term of a renewed license for Indian Point from 2033 and 2035 for Units 2 and 3, respectively, to 2024 and 2025.
  • Agreement by Entergy to provide $15 million as part of its continued commitment to community stakeholders and environmental stewardship; and
  • Various inspections of Indian Point conducted by Entergy and New York State, supplemental to NRC inspections.”

The environmental NGO Riverkeeper has some additional skepticism about Holtec, the firm who will decommission the plant, and although the issues raised were not water security related, the corporate structure that they found left little to be admired: “the company was caught bribing workers at the Tennessee Valley Authority, was suspended from contracting with TVA, and then lied about its corporate past to obtain tax breaks from New Jersey. Holtec’s partner, SNC-Lavalin, is also embroiled in a bribery scandal in Canada. Not only does Holtec have limited experience with decommissioning, its spent fuel management system at San Onofre nuclear power plant proved to have serious design flaws, and Holtec has a history of risk-taking with spent nuclear fuel canisters, brought to light by whistleblower actions.” This track record does not bode well for their future at Indian Point and those are Riverkeeper and similar NGOs are encouraging Governor Cuomo to reject the transfer.

The good news is that New York state’s government under Andrew Cuomo, who sends a bit of mixed message on nuclear power due to his granting other state nuclear plants subsidies while denying them to Indian Point, has established an energy plan for the future, in line with the Paris Agreement, meeting GHG reduction targets and. “The cornerstone of Cuomo’s Green New Deal is to boost New York’s Clean Energy Standard from 50 percent to 70 percent renewable electricity by 2030. To meet this new mandate, the briefing calls for:

  • Nearly quadrupling New York’s offshore wind target to 9,000 megawatts by 2035, up from 2,400 megawatts by 2030
  • Doubling distributed solar deployment to 6,000 megawatts by 2025, up from 3,000 megawatts by 2023
  • More than doubling new large-scale, land-based wind and solar resources through the Clean Energy Standard
  • Maximizing the contributions and potential of New York’s existing renewable resources.”

All of these processes for producing energy are infinitely less water intensive.

And the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) reports that Governor Cuomo “also recently committed to strengthening the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in order to cut power sector carbon pollution by at least 30 percent from 2021-2030. That’s significant because under the governor’s proposal there would be an even more stringent carbon cap for the nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states than the continued 2.5 percent annual decline assumed in the modeling. RGGI plays an important role in ensuring climate progress and will continue to do so after Indian Point closes.”(14) Through these forward-thinking plans, New York will indeed become a leader of green energy in the nation, if not the world. Indian Point’s closure worries many that the lapse in available energy will be jarring, but this isn’t really an issue as the slack has been and will be picked up in immediate terms by natural gas.

         However, one issue that stands in the way of the future of ensuring nuclear and other power plants can’t continue to use excessive amounts of water to pollute and seriously damage the nation’s water ways is in fact the federal government itself. In September 2019, the Trump administration rolled back the 2015 Waters of the United States rule (an update to the 1972 Clean Water Act) that had been installed by the Obama administration. According to a report in the New York Times, “An immediate effect of the clean water repeal is that polluters will no longer need a permit to discharge potentially harmful substances into many streams and wetlands. But the measure, which is expected to take effect in a matter of weeks, has implications far beyond the pollution that will now be allowed to flow freely into waterways.” There will be many lawsuits, further confusing the issue. “Under the provisions of the Clean Water Act, legal challenges must be heard in Federal District Court, which is based at the state level, rather than federal appeals court. Richard J. Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard Law School, said that meant that opponents of the Trump administration would focus their challenges in states they perceived as friendly.”

         New York state has many things to consider in terms of meeting the goals of the NY New Green Deal and the Paris Agreement and it is encouraging to see the state take such forward thinking steps towards renewables and away from outdated, substandard power facilities that are shown  by many to be a threat to the aquatic ecosystem, and beyond. While nuclear power is certainly an option for cleaner energy, and water is integral to the process of creating energy, it is not acceptable to maintain insufficient practices that damage the environment on a daily basis, when other options are available.

Sally Barr