Nuclear: a unclear future

Indian point
Indian Point Energy Center

This weekend in Buchanan, New York, there were reports of a spike in radioactivity in the groundwater near Indian Point Energy Center.  Indian Point Energy Center is a nuclear plant 30 miles from New York City that provides electricity of NYC and Westchester County. The plant is 42 years old (NYTimes).

The level of radioactivity in the groundwater jumped 65,000 percentEntergy, the company that owns the plant, reported the spike to the state, but also claimed it posed no danger to the public (statement below).

[“While elevated tritium in the ground on-site is not in accordance with our standards, there is no health or safety consequence to the public, and releases are more than a thousand times below federal permissible limits,” the company said.  “The tritium did not affect any source of drinking water on-site or offsite.”]

After researching the effects of tritium of the health, I was surprised to find that many scientists have deems it not detrimental to human health. In fact, tritium leaks into groundwater are not uncommon.  I am skeptical that a radioactive material in unnaturally high doses is not harmful to human health.  Nevertheless, this leak in radioactive material is indicative of a more widespread problem.

Why nuclear?

I have often questioned the safety of nuclear energy. In my home country, France, more than two thirds of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear.  However, while I lived in Japan, I experienced firsthand the unforgiving consequences of a nuclear accident.

Nuclear fission reactors are advertised as a major clean source of energy.  Proponents of nuclear argue that is cost efficient, clean, and scalable.  However, nuclear power also presents many disadvantages.  Firstly, while it is true that nuclear energy produces cheap electricity, on average 2.1 cents per kilowatt hour, this does not reflect the increasing cost of constructing nuclear power plants.  The cost and time of building new plants has increased dramatically over the years (shown below – from Berthélemya and Rangel). This is because of the increase cost of complying to new safety regulations.

Construction time and cost of nuclear plants over the years.
Construction cost of nuclear plants 1970-2005
Number of years it takes to build a nuclear power plant
Number of years it takes to build a nuclear power plant 1970-2005

 

Secondly, while it is true that nuclear energy is clean to generate, it is not completely clean. Nuclear energy leaves behind nuclear waste, a highly radioactive nuclear fuel rod is damaging to human health and the environment for thousands of years. However, there is no sure and safe  method of storing these waste products as of yet.  Additionally, in the event of an accident, nuclear technology of inflicting extensive and something continuous damage.

And lastly, is nuclear power safe? I am reminded of an apt analogy I heard long ago that explains the risk of nuclear power: Nuclear power is like air travel. The vast majority of times, it is safe and routine. But when something goes wrong, it goes very wrong.

Nuclear energy in the US

Given the rapidly increasing cost of construction,  utilities and plant owners are attempting to prolong the life of old plants in order to maintain their profits and avoid additional costs. This disturbing trend means that the average age of a nuclear plant in the USA is now 35 years (US Energy Information Administration). Thus, the US’ energy demand is being met by dilapidated, outdated nuclear plants; an issue that can endanger thousands of people and ecosystems.

Indian Point, in particular, has hosted numerous dangerous incidents, especially in the past five years. The plant’s original 40 year license has already expired. Entergy applied for a 20-year extension and the plant is currently awaiting license renewal (Nuclear Regulatory Commission).

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the final say in whether the plant’s license will be renewed, or whether it will be shutdown. Ideally, I hope the Commission will base its decision off scientific and professional findings.

It is interesting to note that Indian Point has faced scrutiny over the years, particularly since the Fukushima accident in 2011. Governor Cuomo has long advocated for the shutdown of the plant. However, there is some political opposition. This is unsurprising considering Entergy’s massive lobbying efforts. Between 2005 and 2012, the company spent $31.4 million lobbying the federal government. Within New York State, Entergy has spent $1,666,747 in the 2012 election cycle compared to $706,403 in the 2006. Interestingly, Governor Cuomo has received no money. Former Representative Nan Hayworth, who received $23,200 during the 2012 election cycle, was one of the most vocal advocates for renewing Indian Point’s license (Common Cause, ABC News).

 

 

 

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