The New York Times The New York Times New York Region May 26, 2002  

Job Market
Real Estate
New York Region
- Metro Campaigns
- The City
- Columns
NYT Front Page
Readers' Opinions

Dining & Wine
Home & Garden
Fashion & Style
New York Today
Week in Review
Learning Network
Theater Tickets
Premium Products
NYT Store
NYT Mobile
E-Cards & More
About NYTDigital
Jobs at NYTDigital
Online Media Kit
Our Advertisers
Your Profile
E-Mail Preferences
News Tracker
Premium Account
Site Help
Privacy Policy
Home Delivery
Customer Service
Electronic Edition
Media Kit
Text Version

Join Ameritrade. Get $50 & commission-free trades!

Find More Low Fares! Experience Orbitz!

Scottrade: $7 Trades, Fast Executions, #1 Broker

Go to Advanced Search/ArchiveGo to Advanced Search/ArchiveSymbol Lookup
Search Options divide
go to Member Center Log Out
  Welcome, paulryder1

Fuel Rods and Brass Tacks


BUCHANAN, 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 largely intact.

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 before.

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 are in.

"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 passionately held.

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 threats.

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 supply-and-demand question."

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 said.

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 plant emissions."

E-Mail This Article
Printer-Friendly Format
Most E-Mailed Articles

Start the day informed with home delivery of The New York Times newspaper.
Click Here for 50% off.

Home | Back to New York Region | Search | Corrections | Help | Back to Top

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Permissions | Privacy Policy
E-Mail This Article
Printer-Friendly Format
Most E-Mailed Articles

James Estrin/The New York Times
The economic fallout from the Enron fallout is starting to steer the discussion about the Indian Point nuclear power plant.


Electric Light and Power
Atomic Energy
Create Your Own | Manage Alerts
Take a Tour
Sign Up for Newsletters

You can be the first to know about promotions, offers and new products from select advertisers. Click here to sign up.

Search for Jobs:

Sign up for Job Alerts
Post Your Resume