In a major victory for local environmentalists and a setback for the nuclear industry, on Friday the New York State Department of Energy Conservation ruled that the aging Indian Point nuclear power plant just north of New York City violates clean water rules and must be equipped with cooling towers, if it is to continue to operate. The plant, which was built in the early 1970s and supplies almost a third of the city's electricity, relies on a once-through cooling system, taking water from the Hudson River and returning it to the river.
The numbers do give pause: The two operating Indian Point reactors take in 9.5 billion liters of water a day, "or more than twice the average daily water consumption of all of New York City" and then pump it back into the Hudson "20 or 30 degrees hotter," as The New York Times reported this weekend. The state ruled that the cooling system kills too many fish, and consumes and contaminates too much water, to warrant renewal of the reactors' 20-year operating licenses in a few years' time. By common consent; no such cooling system would be approved for a new plant today; installation of the cooling towers commonly (though mistakenly) associated with images of nuclear power would cost an estimated $1.1 billion.
More is at stake here, however, than the usual tradeoff between environmental protection and business competitiveness. Indian Point is located at a lovely little bend in the Hudson, just across from a spectacular state park, and just down-river from West Point and Storm King (where, by the way, the contemporary environmental movement got its start in a battle over a dam proposal). Right now, consisting basically just of two domed reactors, Indian Point's presence is discreet and unobtrusive. But it's hard to imagine its being equipped with huge cooling towers without its turning into an eyesore in what is one of the nation's most lovely and historic sites.
That scenario is a reminder of an element in the debates over our energy futures that is rarely stated and discussed, but which is arguably much more important than it may seem. There are a lot of people around the world who consider wind turbines a visual blight, not very different from the electrical transmission towers that are always so controversial. Consider now that if the Indian Point electricity going to New York all had to be generated by wind, perhaps 200-500 huge turbines would have to be put somewhere. I personally find wind farms to be consistently stirring and beautiful, so I'm not one to prefer nuclear on aesthetic grounds. But solar? If it ever turns out to be competitive at grid scale, the alternative to a compact nuclear plant would nondescript photovoltaic farms that cover gigantic areas. I don't know about you, cherished reader, but here my aesthetic preferences are in principle decidedly on the side of nuclear.
That's assuming, however, that beautiful and historic spots on major rivers do not have to be sullied with looming cooling towers. The New York State decision, coming on top of Vermont's decision to not renew the license for an old reactor in that state, further calls into question the notion that we are going to see a net increase in nuclear-generated electricity in the near future. President Obama's decision to give loan guarantees for a new nuclear plant in Georgia may be the beginning of a successful effort to prevent the share of U.S. energy produced by reactors from dropping sharply, but it may be not much more than that.