Published 9:46 pm, Sunday, March 27, 2016
The public concern about the consequences of a nuke disaster was always pitted against nuclear energy’s supposed economic benefits. We are bombarded by advertising by the corporations that own nuke plants about how important they are to the economy. However dangerous, whatever the risk of a Fukushima, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, we can’t afford to close them down.
That myth has been permanently shattered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It’s not cheaper. They can’t operate without a subsidy. And a subsidy they may be about to get. This is all happening in the relative quiet of the state’s administrative bureaucracy.
Cuomo directed the Public Service Commission to come up with an energy plan that addressed climate change. This is a good thing. The consequences of global climate change to New York are obvious to anyone with eyes to see. The PSC has come up with a far-reaching plan, which can fairly be described as smart, bold and innovative. Also a good thing. Part of the plan is financial subsidies of old nuclear power plants. Not so good.
The PSC has properly focused on renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions. Nukes, whatever their economics, have relatively low carbon emissions. But economics, the excessive cost of nuclear power, was about to close the Ginna and FitzPatrick plants upstate. So Cuomo is proposing to subsidize the two plants, keep them open and benefit from their low carbon emissions.
Subsidies for nuclear power? There are better, safer and cheaper ways to meet the carbon reduction goals. And, at the same time, Cuomo remains committed to closing the downstate Indian Point plant. It is excluded from the subsidies, which may be legally difficult to achieve.
If it sounds complicated, it is. The move toward reduced carbon emissions in New York is the right thing to do. But the truth is that operating old, out-of-date nukes is a calculated safety and public health risk, one that is not worth taking. Better to put more emphasis on conservation and other renewable sources like wind and solar power, which are already included in the overall plan.
There are some conclusions to be drawn. We’ve begun to pay attention to the crisis in our transportation infrastructure. There’s a growing sense that we need to invest in roads, bridges and such. We have not paid attention to other vast infrastructure systems, like drinking water, telecommunications and energy.
As good a job as the PSC has done — with the exception of the nuke subsidy — these are too big to leave to administrative agencies. The long predicted crisis for all our infrastructure systems is upon us, and the Legislature and the governor need to elevate, and politicize, the major changes that are coming. The state will inevitably have to commit large sums of money to these systems, and voters should know about and participate in the decisions.
Cuomo stepped forward on a difficult issue, much to his credit. The overall strength of the Cuomo/PSC energy plan is clear. So are the public health and safety dangers of New York’s ancient, costly and technologically risky nuclear plants. The glaring problems of subsidizing nuclear power and the Indian Point anomaly need rethinking.
Richard Brodsky is a fellow at the Demos think tank in New York City and at the Wagner School at New York University