Indian Point – A Symbol of Nuclear Energy in America

Governor Cuomo has reached an agreement with Entergy (the company that owns the Indian Point nuclear power plant) to shut down operations by April 2021. The Indian Point nuclear power plant is in a sensitive area: 30 miles from Midtown in New york City, 65 miles from the Hudson Valley, and right next to the Hudson river. The power plant has been referred to by Cuomo as a “ticking time bomb,” following the radioactive leak that contaminated groundwater last year.  Cuomo gave a statement about the plant following the announcement of its closure – “For 15 years, I have been deeply concerned by the continuing safety violations at Indian Point, especially given its location in the largest and most densely populated metropolitan region in the country. I am proud to have secured this agreement with Entergy [the plant’s operator] to responsibly close the facility 14 years ahead of schedule, to protect the safety of all New Yorkers.”

Closing the facility presents its own set of problems. Matthew Deady, a physics professor at Bard (and former teacher of the class “Chernobyl: A Man-Made Disaster”), had a conversation with me about the positive and negative characteristics of nuclear power. Nuclear waste can remain radioactive from 150 to a million years after its containment. Deady says one of the most difficult tasks for nuclear physicists was to “design a universal symbol to associate with radioactive waste so that in future generations, when the languages we speak today could very well be completely different, people understand the symbol as an indication of radioactive material.”

Another complication that comes from closing nuclear power plants in America is their private ownership. When an energy company closes one of their plants, they lose an asset but must continue to spend money on maintenance until the radioactive waste reaches its half-life. If nuclear energy innovation continues to decline, and more plants close, companies may be incentivized to cut costs on maintenance, jeopardizing the safety of nearby communities.

For this reason, many argue that nuclear power plants should be government-owned. In France, nuclear power accounts for the majority of the country’s energy supply, this dependency is responsible for the country’s low levels of carbon emission. Électricité de France (EDF) – the country’s main electricity generation and distribution company – manages the country’s nuclear power plants and is substantially owned by the government, with around 85% of its shares in government hands. In contrast to France’s nuclear power friendly policies, America has steadily decreased interest in researching new nuclear energy innovations. No politician wants to be held responsible for the possible downfall of a nuclear plant malfunction. However, attitude towards nuclear power is subject to change in Trump’s administration.

The U.S Department of Energy is a cabinet level department concerned with policies regarding energy and safety in handling nuclear material. Trump replaced the head of the department with former governor of Texas Rick Perry. Perry, an advocate for oil companies, hasn’t said much in regards to nuclear power. He once expressed a desire to abolish the Department of Energy entirely. The former Texas governor appears to be in line with Trump’s vision of slashing nuclear regulations, posing a threat to nuclear safety. Perhaps the decline of interest in nuclear innovation is a positive thing, given the current administration’s lack of experience in this field.Nuclear energy has the potential to lower carbon emissions and benefit the environment, however, this requires innovation and regulation that may be too ambitious for the current administration to execute safely. Many will argue that the closure of nuclear power plants, Indian point especially given its spotty safety record, is not a great loss – that solar and wind energy can compensate for the loss of nuclear energy. For these reasons, the future of nuclear power in America seems bleak. Whether a decrease in dependency on nuclear power will be beneficial to the United States in the long run remains to be seen.

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