On Friday, unit 3 of the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, New York, shut down permanently. It follows the shutdown of unit two exactly a year before. These closures come despite the incredible reliability of the nuclear plant over the past 60 years, following a settlement with New York state.
When both units were in operation, the plant provided enough electricity to power nearly 1.5 million homes. Unit 2 had a capacity of 1,028 MW (Megawatts) and unit 3 had a capacity of 1,041 MW.
According to Entergy, the company that owns Indian Point, “Key considerations in the shutdown decision were sustained low current and projected wholesale energy prices, increased operating costs and continuing costs for license renewal,” the company was also under pressure from the state of New York, with costly litigation occurring frequently.
The costs associated with a litigious state government, and with a difficult regulatory environment aren’t market forces. Plenty of headlines will point to the closure of Indian Point as being caused by economic forces, but they are not free market ones. Over the course of a decade, litigation with the state of New York over efforts to renew the reactor licenses cost Entergy $200 million.
The litigation has been redirected now that the decommissioning process has begun. On January 22nd, the state Attorney General Letitia James, has also since filed suit against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), regarding the transfer of the plant’s licenses from Entergy to a company called Holtec which will decommission the plants.
Despite being in operation since 1976, unit 3 was still functioning well, and producing reliable energy. In fact, it’s impressive record for reliability is record setting. According to Entergy Chief Nuclear Officer Chris Bakken, “Indian Point has been operated and maintained at the highest levels of reliability, safety and security for many years, and unit 3 has been online continuously since April 9, 2019 – setting a new world record for continuous days of operation,”.
Nuclear power in New York state has been incredibly reliable. In 2017, when Unit 2 was also still in service, the state’s six reactors had a capacity factor of 89 percent, meaning that it achieved 89 percent of the cumulative maximum nameplate capacity of its plants. For comparison, intermittent sources like wind and solar had capacity factors of 26 percent and 14 percent respectively.
These closures are an example of the power that bureaucratic decisions made today have to impact our energy future years, and even decades from now. Once the decommissioning process has begun, there’s no turning these reactors back on. That means that the decision to shut down Indian Point will permanently squander the potential for decades of low carbon energy to be produced. For a state that has made hard to meet promises on decarbonization, including membership in the Transportation and Climate Initiative, an initiative of 13 northeastern states with the purported goal of reducing emissions in the power sector, and pledge as part of the states climate plan to achieve “a zero-carbon emissions electricity sector by 2040”, it makes little sense to decommission existing low carbon capacity.
New York is not alone in closing nuclear plants, since 2012 14 reactor units have either been shut down, or had their impending shut downs announced. At the same time, new reactors have not been constructed with any great frequency for decades, the first reactor to be built since 1996 was Watts Bar Unit 2 in 2016.
Nuclear power plants have long operating lives, but they also have long lead times for construction. Forcing the early shuttering of plants through litigation, or by imposing excessive costs puts grid reliability at risk while making it even more difficult to meet lofty emissions goals. Other states would do well not to repeat the mistakes that New York has in this case.