American ambivalence to nuclear power is an enduring reality that has survived events and politics in a truly unique way. Americans embrace what they think is the economic and energy virtues of nuclear power while simultaneously fearing the grotesque consequences of a major release of radiation. It's a kind of cognitive dissonance, or better, a kind of doublethink, where two conflicting ideas co-exist in one brain.
The poster child for all of this denial is the Indian Point nuclear facility on the banks of the Hudson River of New York City. What can be said about without objection is as follows: It never should have been built so close to NYC and 20 million people and could not be built there under today's rules; It is historically the worst and most dangerously operated plant in the US; Its operations have improved to an uncertain degree under its' new owners, the Entergy Corporation of Louisiana; Its license to operate is about to expire, and Entergy wants a new 20 year license.
Everything else is chaos and dispute. Is it cheaper than alternate sources of power? Is it safe? Is it necessary? Is the NRC doing its' job?
These are questions that need discussion and debate. But so far, as with much else concerning nuclear power, no such reasoned debate exists. And the doublethink continues.
Time for full disclosure: After careful review of what is known about the plant, I am and have been of the view that it is dangerous, expensive and unnecessary. Here's why.
Indian Point is expensive and getting more so: The evidence is clear. First, the true cost of nuclear power is much higher than the published cost because so much is subsidized by the taxpayer. If you add the numerous taxpayer subsidies for the production of nuclear fuel, for the disposal of nuclear fuel, for the Hudson River water Indian Point takes and pollutes for free (3 billion gallons a day!), insurance and others, to the cost of producing power, it simply isn't cheaper. Second, the nuclear industry has managed to create pricing policies that allow it to charge the highest possible rate, not its' actual cost of producing power. The result is a cash cow that makes over 50% of its' equity back annually, a $2 billion dollar annual overcharge.
Indian Point is dangerous. Earthquake faults underneath, terrorism vulnerability, fire safety defects, unworkable evacuation plans, aging equipment, spent fuel deposits, corporate arrogance and most importantly an inept NRC have combined to present an unacceptable level of danger. The chances of a significant meltdown at Indian Point remain small; the consequences are so terrifyingly immense that it can't be tolerated.
Indian Point is unnecessary. There are other existing sources of power; there are new sources of power; there are better ways to transmit power to NYC from areas of surplus. And smartest of all, there are ways to reduce demand without hurting our economy or our communities.
I understand there are other viewpoints, and that I could be wrong. But in the absence of a substantive discussion, 2012 is likely to see all these issues land smack in the middle of our political discourse. The relicensing application before the NRC will be considered and decided; the pollution of the Hudson will be considered and decided; a major lawsuit about fire safety will be decided (full disclosure again: The suit Brodsky v. NRC was brought and argued by the author is this article).
In the battle over Indian Point, lined up on one side is a strong coalition of politicians (NY's Governor Cuomo, and many other electeds), public interest groups, celebrities, and a growing segment of the public. On the other Entergy (with a huge budget for media), the NRC, Mayor Bloomberg, and apparently Barack Obama.
These dichotomies can't go on forever. They are of national and international significance and it is very likely that all will come to a head very soon and 2012 will be the year of decision for Indian Point.