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Summer 2006 Vol. 6 No. 2

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Shedding Light on the Matter

Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, ©Alan Schein Photography/Corbis

Alternatives to Indian Point Nuclear Plant

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many New York state residents became concerned that the Indian Point nuclear power plant, located 40 miles north of New York City, might be vulnerable to attack as well, with some calling for the plant to be shut down. This, in turn, prompted Congress to ask the National Research Council if it would be possible to replace the energy lost by closing Indian Point -- which provides one-quarter of the electricity in New York City and the lower Hudson Valley.

A n expert committee concluded that Indian Point's energy supplies could be replaced with non-nuclear power plants, additional transmission lines, and new efforts by consumers to save energy, but the state would need to overcome many political, regulatory, and financial hurdles.

"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 implementation of alternatives," said Lawrence T. Papay, a consultant in electric power and energy and member of the National Academy of Engineering who chaired the committee that wrote the report.

The operating licenses of the two nuclear reactors at Indian Point expire in 2013 and 2015. Closure would remove 2,000 megawatts from the region, which already is growing increasingly short of electric capacity. Even if Indian Point remains in operation, the region will need an additional 3,000 megawatts by 2015 to meet increases in demand and replace scheduled retirements of other power plants. In addition, congestion on the transmission lines prevents additional power from being imported during periods of peak demand.

Not all of Indian Point's 2,000 megawatts would need to be replaced, though, if consumers use electricity more efficiently, the report notes. The committee estimated this could be reduced by at least 850 megawatts if more consumers switch to energy-efficient appliances and shift some of their energy usage to off-peak hours, especially during hot summer days.

The most readily available way to replace the rest of the energy is plants fueled by natural gas -- the current fuel of choice for future electric power plants in New York state. But the committee is concerned over possible shortages and high gas prices. New supply sources would have to be found, which will probably include imported natural gas.

Midtown Manhattan, ©Owaki - Kulla/CorbisBuilding a new coal plant along with a new transmission line would be the cheapest alternative to Indian Point, the report says, but this option is unlikely to be ready by 2015 unless planning starts very soon. Also, burning more coal would complicate the state's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Coal plants release about twice as much carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour as natural gas plants, and nuclear plants release none. Renewable sources of energy -- from wind, the sun, or biomass -- also look promising to the committee, but they could be deployed only on a small scale by 2015.

A complex web of environmental regulations must be considered with any alternative to Indian Point, the report says. In particular, the expiration in 2003 of New York's siting law -- which provided an efficient process for reviewing environmental permits -- will delay permit reviews in the future.

Indian Point is a relatively low-cost power generator, so any new energy source is likely to raise electricity costs, the committee pointed out. Also, security measures would be needed to protect radioactive spent fuel -- whether the plant shuts down or not -- requiring expenses for an unknown period of time.

The committee did not discuss whether Indian Point is vulnerable to a terrorist attack or if it should be closed, although high oil and natural gas prices and concerns about global warming have renewed interest in nuclear power.   -- Patrice Pages

Alternatives to the Indian Point Energy Center for Meeting New York Electric Power Needs. Committee on Alternatives to Indian Point for Meeting Energy Needs, Board on Energy and Environmental Systems, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2006, approx. 376 pp.; ISBN 0-309-10172-7; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $71.50 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

Lawrence T. Papay, consultant, La Jolla, Calif., chaired the committee. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences