UCHANAN, N.Y., May 23 — For many years, the argument
over the Indian Point nuclear power plant here in New York
City's northern suburbs was one of the great evergreens of
Northeastern environmentalism. It could always be counted on
and it never really changed. The positions on both sides,
repeated by rote for decades, became a liturgy that was sure
to inflame passions without much risk of anything actually
happening as a result.
One side said that the plant was unsafe because residents
could not be easily evacuated in the event of an emergency,
and that its owners were incompetent. The other side said that
the reactors were vital to the power grid and that opponents
were overwrought and emotional. September's terrorist attacks
added a new note to the chorus, but left the strident rhetoric
That dynamic is changing. Now, a conversation about Indian
Point is likely to drift toward the economic fallout from Enron. People who oppose
the plant have also begun to lay out specific horse trades
they might be willing to make. Some environmentalists say, for
instance, that more air pollution and so-called greenhouse gas
emissions, neither of which is a big issue in the case of
nuclear power, would be a reasonable price if closing Indian
Point meant that the region's old oil-burning plants — many
considered to be on their last legs — had to keep running.
Both sides are grinding out numbers and studies as never
Other new variables have entered the picture as well, like
the proposed Millennium Pipeline that would carry natural gas
into the New York City area. Many residents in this part of
New York vehemently oppose the pipeline, which is stalled by
environmental and safety concerns. But both sides in the new
plant debate concede that if nuclear power were taken out of
the region's mix of energy-making fuels, natural gas would
become more crucial than ever.
What has happened, energy experts say, is that the members
of the Indian Point debate team — supporters and opponents
alike — have been forced, in a way, to grow up. Although most
environmentalists and industry officials say the odds are
still long that the plant will close any time soon, playing
"what if" is no longer the purely theoretical parlor game it
once was, and that has made all the difference. Ideology and
philosophy are out; nuts and bolts and real-world implications
"When you begin to think through the actual closing of a
plant, a lot of issues come up," said Robert H. Socolow, a
professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at
Princeton, who studies energy issues. "Some are nightmarish.
They're all difficult."
Certainly, security is still the driving force, especially
in the last few weeks since the Bush administration issued a
warning about a possible terrorist strike this summer on an
American nuclear plant. And the shift toward practical terms
and arguments does not make the positions any less sharp or
But it does alter the terrain. From its once-narrow base as
an environmental issue, the question of nuclear power in New
York City's backyard has expanded to envelop almost every
aspect of how energy is bought, sold and distributed. Any
discussion of electricity economics, energy conservation —
even the predictions about the length of the recession, which
has reduced energy demand since fall — eventually turns to
Indian Point's twin brown domes on the banks of the Hudson
River, 30 miles north of the George Washington Bridge.
Some of these new questions are huge and profound: do
deregulated energy markets really work, and how exactly would
they deal with something like the closing of Indian Point? Is
there a threshold at which the potentially huge costs of
decommissioning the plant would become too high for society,
or the region's economy, to bear?
Other questions are small and profound: should the added
security costs needed to operate a nuclear plant be borne by
the public or the industry? And if high security is a
permanent new cost of business, is it still an economically
efficient way to make electricity?
"Things are part of the mix now that never were before,"
said Jim Steets, a spokesman for the Entergy Corporation, the company based in
New Orleans that owns and operates Indian Point.
Among the most novel of the arguments in the new Indian
Point playbook is that closing the plant might actually fix
some things that are wrong with New York's electricity system,
most of which have nothing at all to do with terrorist
One big issue in electricity economics right now is a money
drought. Since the collapse of Enron last year, investors who
are still bullish on power plant investments in New York have
become about as hard to find as Manhattan parking spaces.
Seven plants have received regulatory approval around the
state, but only one is under construction and no one is sure
how many will go forward. The answer, some people say, is to
close Indian Point.
Removing 2,000 megawatts from the system, plant opponents
say — enough to power about two million average homes — would
crimp the regional electricity supply and send a signal to
Wall Street, which would see an opportunity to make money and
so throw open the money spigot. The plants on the drawing
board would be built and Indian Point's electricity gap, they
say, would be resolved. Case closed.
"The loss of Indian Point Units 2 and 3 would allow market
forces to essentially trump any Enron effect," said Alex
Matthiessen, the executive director of Riverkeeper Inc., a
nonprofit conservation group based in Garrison, N.Y., less
than 10 miles from the plant. "It's essentially a
Other experts say that such a mechanism might in fact work,
as odd as it sounds, but that it would be a far more wrenching
process than Mr. Matthiessen and other advocates suggest
because the triggering event would not be the plant's closing,
but the higher electricity prices that would result. Closing
alone would not be enough.
"Price is the only signal the market understands," said Dr.
Rajat K. Deb, the president of LCG Consulting, an energy
advisory firm based in Los Altos, Calif. Dr. Deb said that
high prices would also have to remain high for a long time to
convince investors that they were not just a blip. "But then
the question becomes whether that is politically sustainable
when it starts hurting the economy and people lose jobs," he
Underlying all the possible plans for Indian Point is the
question of time. Mr. Steets at Entergy said if the plant were
to be shut down tomorrow, at least five years of cooling would
be required before the radioactive fuel could be safely moved.
During that time — if not longer because of the uncertainties
about long-term storage — the plant would contribute no
electricity, but might still be just as much of a terrorist
target because of the fuel inside, so little would actually be
gained, he said.
Plant opponents, on the other hand, say that there is in
New York a window of opportunity that might not come again. A
year ago, they say, when the news was filled with talk about
the possibility of a California-style energy crisis descending
on New York, the idea of taking Indian Point off-line would
have been unthinkable. Then new emergency supplies were built
in the city, and a recession, compounded by the World Trade
Center attack, reduced demand. It's that temporary slack
period, they argue, that must be seized.
The other trick, people involved in the debate say, is to
calculate the risks in the new Indian Point equation —
specifically, which factors can be controlled and which
cannot. If the air got dirtier from burning more oil or coal,
what would that mean?
"There are in fact significant health risks from coal plant
emissions — they're chronic in nature, and they're serious,
but nowhere near as serious as if Indian Point was attacked,"
said Daniel Rosenblum, a senior lawyer at the Pace Law School
Energy Project, an advocacy group that works for sustainable
energy and conservation. "And we can do things about coal