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The closure of a nuclear plant was celebrated as a victory for environmentalism. However, this led to an increase in emissions.
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The closure of a nuclear plant was celebrated as a victory for environmentalism. However, this led to an increase in emissions.

The closure of the Indian Point nuclear facility in New York in 2021 was welcomed by environmental advocates who had been calling for its shutdown for a long time.

However, there has been an unexpected consequence – following the shutdown, New York’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased.

Despite facing criticism for its negative effects on the surrounding environment and concerns about the potential for a disaster near New York City, Indian Point still provided a significant amount of the state’s electricity without producing carbon emissions.

Ever since the factory shut down, gas has been used instead of clean sources like solar and wind, resulting in an increase in carbon emissions for New York City. This has led to the city’s power grid being even more contaminated than both Texas and the US average, which is a disgraceful situation.

According to Ben Furnas, an expert in climate and energy policy at Cornell University, the recent changes have set back efforts to address climate change and have created difficulties for New York City to transition to decarbonized electricity. He sees it as a cautionary example that has put New York in a difficult situation.

The closure of Indian Point raises sticky questions for the green movement and states such as New York that are looking to slash carbon pollution. Should long-held concerns about nuclear be shelved due to the overriding challenge of the climate crisis? If so, what should be done about the US’s fleet of ageing nuclear plants?

For those who have devoted years to opposing Indian Point, the power plant had very few positive characteristics, especially in a time of increasing global warming. Located on the Hudson River, approximately 25 miles north of Manhattan, this massive facility began operating in the 1960s and its trio of reactors once provided a quarter of New York City’s electricity.

Despite facing ongoing criticism over safety issues, Indian Point power plant was particularly scrutinized for its leaking of radioactive material into the groundwater and harm caused to the river’s fish due to water being used for cooling. Pressure from former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senator Bernie Sanders, who referred to Indian Point as a “catastrophe waiting to happen,” resulted in a planned closure of the remaining reactors in 2020 and 2021.

The shutting down of the plant led to celebrations among environmentalists, including actor Mark Ruffalo, who referred to it as a significant event. In a video, he expressed his hopes to move past Indian Point. New York has two other nuclear plants with licenses expiring in the coming years, which have also faced resistance.

However, rather than immediately bringing about a new era of environmentally-friendly energy, the closure of Indian Point has resulted in an increase in emissions that contribute to global warming. In order to compensate for the energy loss, New York has resorted to consuming more easily accessible gas, causing nuclear energy to only account for one-fifth of the state’s electricity generation, compared to roughly one-third prior to Indian Point’s closure.

This change will not hinder New York’s aim of achieving a zero-emissions grid by 2040. There are currently two significant initiatives in progress to increase the use of Canadian hydroelectricity and local solar and wind power by 2027. Additionally, the state is moving forward with new offshore wind projects, with the first turbines already operational. Governor Kathy Hochul is committed to creating a more environmentally friendly future for all New Yorkers.

Despite the increasing popularity of renewable energy in the United States, gas continues to be the primary backup for utilities when nuclear power is no longer an option. This parallels the experience of Germany, which attempted to shift away from nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, but ultimately relied on coal, the most environmentally harmful form of fossil fuel, as a temporary substitute.

According to Furnas, even as we continue to develop renewable energy sources, we still require alternative sources for when there is no wind or sunlight. Typically, this role is filled by gas. This situation can be stressful, and reducing our reliance on nuclear power, which is a significant source of clean energy, can be detrimental in terms of addressing climate change.

As the world races towards catastrophic effects of climate change due to slow reductions in emissions, some conservationists have put aside their concerns and embraced nuclear energy as a quick solution. Presently, around 20% of the electricity in the US comes from nuclear power.

According to Bill McKibben, a writer, advocate, and creator of 350.org, his acquaintances and colleagues generally believe that it is best to continue operating existing nuclear power plants if possible. The general sentiment towards new nuclear power plants is one of uncertainty, with people hoping that improved technology in the future will make them more feasible, but also wary of potential high costs.

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According to McKibben, the biggest challenge for nuclear energy, despite the ongoing safety concerns, is the fact that solar and wind technologies along with batteries continue to rapidly decrease in cost. This leads to the nuclear industry relying more on political maneuvers to obtain government funding.

Concerns regarding nuclear energy have been a fundamental belief held by the environmental movement for a considerable amount of time. Those opposed to nuclear energy often cite worries about nuclear waste, localized pollution, and the potential for a catastrophic event, although it is highly improbable. In California, a collaboration of environmental organizations has recently taken legal action in an attempt to shut down the Diablo Canyon power plant, which currently supplies approximately 8% of the state’s electricity.

a nuclear power plant in the distance behind a body of waterView image in fullscreen

Hallie Templeton, the legal director of Friends of the Earth, expressed skepticism about the safety of nuclear energy, specifically citing the lack of necessary upgrades and maintenance at Diablo Canyon. This organization, established in 1969 with the goal of opposing Diablo Canyon, considers this a major issue.

Groups raised concerns about Diablo Canyon’s release of wastewater and the potential risk of a earthquake causing a harmful release of nuclear waste. A previous agreement between Friends of the Earth and PG&E, the plant’s operator, to close Diablo Canyon was complicated by state laws that allowed the facility to continue operating for five more years, and possibly even longer. Templeton described this as an additional blow to their opposition.

She stated that we are not trapped in the past, but instead, we are actively adopting renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Everyone had plenty of time to prepare and make the transition to solar and wind energy, but they chose not to. The main beneficiary of the situation is the corporation that profits from keeping the power plant operational for a longer period of time.

On the other hand, proponents of nuclear power, often referred to as “nuclear bros” on the internet, argue that the industry has advanced beyond the dangers of events like Chernobyl and is now embracing smaller, more efficient nuclear reactors. Companies like Amazon are even investing in nuclear-powered data centers, and figures like Bill Gates have also put money into the technology. In light of increasing electricity costs and concerns about the environment, supporters state that there is a growing reconsideration of nuclear power.

Grace Stanke, a nuclear fuels engineer and former Miss America who frequently speaks about the advantages of nuclear energy, stated “There has been a significant shift – five years ago, discussing nuclear would often elicit a hostile reaction, but now people are much more receptive.”

According to her, the younger generation is interested in discussing nuclear energy in relation to climate change, while people of all ages are interested in having access to reliable energy. She believes that nuclear energy has the potential to meet these needs.

Source: theguardian.com