WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Governor Andrew Cuomo says the Nuclear Review Commission has put New York's Indian Point, 35 miles from New York City, at the top of its 27 nuclear power plant seismic review.
Yet before Fukushima upended atomic power's risk-benefit matrix, the NRC had already signed off on two critical internal staff reports that gave Indian Point a green light for another 20 years. Cuomo has long been on record supporting the plant's closure.
All that stood between Indian Point and a new lease on life was the public comment period and the state's Department of Environmental Conservation.
While Indian Point's vulnerability to an earthquake grabs the headlines, the nuclear plant has been striking out for years in its attempt to get a state water quality permit for its discharge into the Hudson. Without the state water sign off, Indian Point cannot get its 20 year federal renewal.
Indian Point plant unit 2's NRC license runs out 2013 and unit 3's lapses in 2015.
For Indian Point, the uphill climb started in 2003 when the State's Department of Environmental Conservation required cooling towers to prevent thermal pollution that the DEC says hurts the Hudson River's marine life.
Hudson Riverkeeper lawyer Phillip Musegaas says the DEC's move was totally in line with decades of scientific data about Indian Point's impact on the Hudson, a tidal river.
"They suck two and a half-billion gallons in and they discharge from anywhere from 90 to 100 degrees," says Musegaas. "You have an effect on the fish and the fish eggs and you have an impact when the hot water is discharged into the river."
Gerry Nappi, a spokesman for Entergy, Indian Point's owner, says the DEC's cooling-towers strategy is an expensive, $2 billion remedy for a non-problem.
"Indian Point has minimal impact on the fish population in the Hudson River," says Nappi. "This has been well-documented in 25 years of study that fifty million dollars has been spent on."
Nappi says Entergy is willing to spend $200 million on micro-mesh screens to keep the aquatic life out of Hudson River intake valves.
But Entergy's strategy is meeting obstacles. In 2010, the state refused to grant Indian Point a water quality certificate they must have to get their federal 20-year license renewal.
Riverkeeper lawyer Attorney Phillip Musegaas says in both cases it was how the plant impacted the Hudson River that factored into the DEC rulings. Musegaas notes how the plant uses the Hudson is only part of the plant's environmental downside.
Indian Point generates between 25 and 30 percent of New York City's daily power needs and Mayor Bloomberg, who has gone around the world to burnish his image as the planet's green Mayor, supports Indian Point's continued operation. And opponents say the state can make it up with conservation and renewables like wind and solar. Hard-headed business types say that's naive.
With the latest reports from Japan that officials have asked that Tokyo parents not give their infants water from the public water supply due to concerns about excessive radiation U.S. nukes popularity is likely to plummet even faster.
Indian Point is just a few miles from New York City's Croton Reservoir and several New Jersey reservoirs are just across from the Hudson to the west.
Back in 1989 it was Governor Cuomo's father Mario Cuomo who as Governor sidelined Long Island's Shoreham Nuclear Power plant that was set to open. His issue was public safety and the challenge that evacuating Long Island presented.
Hudson Riverkeeper lawyer Musegaas says that after that the NRC retooled and Governors no longer had the power to make that determination. "Now those issues reside with the NRC and FEMA," says Musegaas.
This may all come down to the mighty Hudson and the right of the state to set water quality standards in the face of a powerful multi-billion dollar industry that is being promoted by President Obama as the path out of global warming.
This state water gambit has already played out in New Jersey with a kind of 'split the difference' result. There Exelon's Oyster Creek nuclear plant, the oldest in the country, won NRC relicensing for another 20 years. But state environmental officials backed up by an outgoing Governor Jon Corzine required that Exelon build cooling towers to mitigate its impact on aquatic life.
Exelon said the cost was prohibitive and balked. After spending six figures in lobbying Trenton they closed a deal with the incoming Governor Chris Chrisitie Administration----no pricey cooling towers but an early shutdown in 2019, a decade earlier than the NRC had approved.
Of course "shut down" isn't really the right phrase. With no national policy on what to do with the highly radioactive spent fuel rods somebody will have to be on duty, on site, for many generations.