New York's political titans are clashing over the future of a controversial nuclear plant north of New York City.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to close the aging Indian Point nuclear plant because of safety concerns. But the plant, which wants to extend its original licenses for another 20 years, has some powerful allies of its own.
In Westchester County, about 35 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan, a handful of anti-nuclear activists holds a weekly protest against Indian Point. They stand by the side of a busy, two-lane road waving signs and calling for the plant to close.
Protester Marilyn Elie says a successful evacuation in the event of an accident is basically impossible because 20 million people live within 50 miles of the plant.
"We can't do rush hour twice a day — not easily and not well," Elie says, "let alone what would happen with an evacuation. Everyone else would want to get the hell out of dodge, and who could blame them?"
Occasionally, drivers honk in support while others make gestures that are definitely not friendly. But most just keep driving. Protests against Indian Point have been part of the landscape for decades. Lately, though, the issue has taken on new urgency for two reasons.
One is the disaster halfway around the world at Fukushima in Japan. The other is Cuomo, a first-term Democrat with a track record of getting what he wants. What Cuomo wants is to close the plant's two reactors when their licenses expire by 2015.
"As attorney general, I did a lot of work on Indian Point. I understand the power and the benefit," Cuomo said. "I also understand the risk, and this plant, in this proximity to New York City, was never a good risk."
But Cuomo isn't the only high-profile player in this drama. Entergy — the company that bought Indian Point just over a decade ago — is bringing out the big guns. It brought in former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to act as a paid celebrity spokesman.
"Like you, I want to do everything needed to keep New York safe and strong. The people at Indian Point do, too," Giuliani says in a TV commercial that started airing last week.
Entergy won't say how much it's paying Giuliani, but spokesman Jerry Nappi acknowledges that the company has a big investment to protect.
"Entergy ... has spent a billion dollars on safety and equipment enhancements at [Indian Point]," he said. "That's a large amount of money at this site to make sure equipment can operate safely for another 20 years."
Entergy has other high-powered friends as well. The plant accounts for roughly a quarter of the electricity consumed in New York City and Westchester. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says he thinks that power would be difficult to replace.
"If you closed Indian Point down today, we'd have enormous blackouts," Bloomberg said. "There is no alternative to the energy that we get from Indian Point. Four or five years from now, that probably is not going to be true."
The Bloomberg administration commissioned a study that found that retiring Indian Point would likely lead to more pollution from fossil fuels and higher energy prices. Even after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, a poll showed that 49 percent of New Yorkers want to keep the Indian Point plant running; 40 percent want it closed.
But in Westchester, though activists Dale Saltzman and Elie might not have many resources, they say they'll keep up the fight against Indian Point, no matter how much money the plant's owners spend to sway public opinion. As long as Cuomo is in office, Indian Point's opponents have one powerful ally in Albany.