Life After Indian Point

When Westchester’s controversial nuclear power plant fully shuts down in 2021, the economic, environmental, and energy consequences will ripple across the county.



photo by MARTIN BOND / SCIENCE source

From a boat on the Hudson or a riverbank in Rockland County, Indian Point is hard to miss: two hulking, gray domes perched on the river’s edge. The facility appears otherworldly — a structure that might look more at home on the moon, rather than the sleepy village of Buchanan.

Over the years, Indian Point’s impact on Westchester life — from economics to ecology to energy — has also been hard to miss. From the power plant’s opening in the 1960s up to present day, it’s been a source of controversy: “Wood, Field and Stream; Con Edison Engineers Trying to Halt Mass Killing of Fish in Hudson,” reads a New York Times headline from 1963. Fifty-one years later, the Times was still reporting a similar theme, claiming that as many as a billion fish eggs and other small aquatic organisms were being ”parboiled” each year by the plant’s river-water cooling system.

You may have also spotted the “Close Indian Point” bumper stickers or those ominous bright-blue evacuation signs, even the occasional protest.

But the power plant has brought boons, too: thousands of high-paying jobs for Westchester residents; monumental tax payments to nearby municipalities; and, of course, energy. The plant’s two active reactors generate a combined 2,000 megawatts of electricity — enough to power millions of homes.

In recent years, however, safer energy sources, like wind power, and cheaper energy sources, like natural gas, have emerged — all while critics of Indian Point have found some prominent allies. Governor Andrew Cuomo says often that the plant’s proximity to New York City, and its potential for disaster, is unacceptable. In this changing environment, questions about the power plant’s demise began to be framed not as “if” but “when.” In early 2017, when New York State and Entergy (which owns and operates Indian Point) announced they would shutter the plant over the course of four years, the decision wasn’t shocking.

The first of the plant’s two active reactors will go offline in April 2020, the second in April 2021. (A third reactor closed decades ago.) Then comes years, maybe even decades, of decommissioning. In 2021, Entergy plans to sell the property to Holtec International, a company with experience dismantling nuclear plants that has a presence in the U.S., the U.K., India, and elsewhere. “They have special expertise that Entergy doesn’t have,” explains Jerry Nappi, Entergy’s director of communications. “They can decommission the plant decades sooner than we would be able to.”

But even if the closure isn’t a shock, the impact is still monumental on a region that has become deeply entwined with its power plant. Despite careful planning for the shutdown, a range of Westchester players — from local governments and taxpayers to Entergy employees and environmental advocates — are anticipating big changes. And they won’t just affect the 2,200 people who call Buchanan home or the 42,000 residents of the town of Cortlandt. The economic, environmental, and energy impacts will be felt across the entire county, experts say.

 


Cortlandt Town Supervisor Linda Puglisi, Hendrick Hudson School Superintendent Joseph Hochreiter, and Buchanan Mayor Theresa Knickerbocker.

photo by Ken Gabrielsen

 

Linda Puglisi has served as town supervisor of Cortlandt for 14 terms — some 28 years. “Did we know Indian Point was going to close eventually? Of course,” says Puglisi. “We just didn’t know they were going to close now.”

Few people understand Indian Point’s relationship with Westchester better than Puglisi, who, unsurprisingly, holds the distinction of Cortlandt’s longest-serving supervisor. But when the closure announcement was made in 2017, Puglisi says she found out at the same time as everyone else.

“The economic fallout of this is extremely significant,” Puglisi says. “It’s the largest taxpayer in the town of Cortlandt,”  referring to the $800,000 a year the town receives from Indian Point. Meanwhile, in Buchanan, about one-half of the village’s annual revenue comes from Indian Point taxes. A local fire district and library are set to lose the lion’s share of their funding, too, Puglisi explains.

One of Cortlandt’s school districts, Hendrick Hudson, will suffer, as well. The district gets $24 million from Indian Point — “one-third of their revenue,” Puglisi says.

In total, “It adds up to $32 million a year that all the [affected] entities are going to lose,” Puglisi continues. “This is a huge challenge, one of the biggest challenges in New York State.”  And that already prodigious number doesn’t even contemplate millions more dollars that Entergy pumps into the community in sponsorships, donations, intiatives and volunteerism.

It’s a challenge without a clear solution. A PILOT  (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement between Entergy and municipal governments, negotiated in 2015, will provide some tax revenue over 10 years. “Payments ramp down for three years after the shutdown and then hold at a certain level,” explains Nappi. The payments will decrease by 30% after the first year, 60% the following year, and 90% the third year. “And then [payments] hold at 10 percent until the PILOT is over in 2025,” Nappi says.

Attempts to remedy the shortfall include Cortlandt seeking vacant or underused land to capitalize on. Puglisi says she hopes for new industries or perhaps a new corporate park. Local officials are also seeking state and federal cessation funds — support for communities facing shortfalls from energy company closings. But the state fund that Puglisi is lobbying only has about $45 million for all state communities that have energy plants closing, she says, not nearly enough to cover the $32 million-per-year shortfall for Indian Point alone.

What about new development projects to fill that tax void — some new taxpayer on Indian Point’s 240 acres, many of which are waterfront? “We lobbied for that,” Puglisi explains, but building on a former nuclear site isn’t so easy. “The decommissioning of the plants could take up to 60 years,” she says, citing NRC data. (Some radioactive materials will remain on the site for a period even after the plant stops functioning.)

Westchester County will be affected by all this, too, as approximately 1% percent of the county’s property tax comes from Indian Point. “It has less of an impact on Westchester County tax roll, although it’s not insignificant,” says Catherine Borgia, the county legislator representing parts of Cortlandt and Peekskill, among other areas. Borgia says her focus is supporting the economic redevelopment of the most affected municipalities, like Cortlandt and Buchanan, and maintaining the environmental safety of the site of the power plant.

 


photo by ken gabrielsen

 

Tax revenue is one thorny problem; jobs are another. Indian Point presently has about 950 employees, from control-room operators to security personnel, and around 170 of them live in Westchester. Despite one of the reactors going offline in 2020, the entirety of that staff will remain until the plant fully closes down, in April 2021. “[Entergy] committed to no reduction in workforce prior to April 2021,” Nappi explains.

The New York State Department of Labor has also stepped in. According to the state’s most recent annual closure report, the agency is deploying a rapid-response team to assist Indian Point employees with résumé services, LinkedIn training, interview best practices, and job leads.

Still, these developments aren’t enough to allay local anxieties. “It’s our largest employer,” Puglisi says, “[with] good-paying jobs.” According to her, the loss of those jobs will impact close to 5,000 people when you take into account employees’ children, grandchildren, and other family members in the vicinity. “Entergy is based in New Orleans,” says Puglisi, “a lovely place to visit, but we don’t want our people to have to move far away. We want them to stay in the area and be retrained and reskilled.”

A local task force — made up of unions and lawmakers, among others — is hoping to mitigate the fallout through retirement packages and retraining programs. There’s also state-level legislation, S5305B, a bill by New York State Senator Pete Harckham to address the issue. The bill aims to protect union jobs and wages during the decommissioning process. The bill “will help keep families in place by preventing a decommissioning company from coming in and displacing our well-trained workforce, replacing them with unskilled, non-union, low-wage out-of-towners,” Harckham explained in a recent press release. (At press time, the bill still needed to pass in the state assembly before proceeding to the governor’s desk.)

Employees and their families won’t be the only ones affected by the closure — Westchester businesses will be, too. “[Employees] go to local delis; they go to local gas stations; they go to local restaurants,” Puglisi explains. “There’s a trickle-down impact on our community.”

Deb Milone, president of the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber is working closely with Entergy and the Indian Point staff as the plant and the region prepare for the shutdown. Nestled in a side street in downtown Peekskill, the chamber represents more than 520 members spread across Croton, Cortlandt, Peekskill, and Putnam Valley, and other municipalities. “It’s mostly small  and medium-sized businesses,” Milone explains, defining “small” as businesses with 10 or fewer employees. (Some big businesses are members, too — including Entergy, BASF, and NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital.)

Many of the small businesses have April 2021 on their minds. “The effect the shutdown will have on the local business community is a concern, but having the decommissioning process done quickly, safely, and efficiently is of paramount importance and will benefit the entire region including the business community,” Milone says. “The closer you are to the plant, the more it’s being discussed.” She expects that restaurants, mechanics, and dry cleaners in places like Buchanan and Montrose will feel the impact worse than, say, businesses in Peekskill or Yorktown.

Milone says it’s difficult for those small businesses to prepare or even anticipate what will happen come 2021. Some are pessimistic: One merchant she spoke with expects to lose 40% of its business. Others are more optimistic, including Milone herself. She recently spoke with members of a chamber of commerce in Vermont, within a community that already lost its nuclear power plant. “[They] said there really wasn’t a major downturn to their small business community,” Milone reports.

 

“Entergy is based in New Orleans. A lovely place to visit, but we don’t want our people to have to move far away. We want them to stay in the area.”

—Cortlandt Town Supervisor Linda Puglisi

 

Comiserating with the merchants, of course, are  homeowners in Cortlandt, Peekskill, and the surrounding area. At present, “there’s really no impact on the values of the homes,” explains Joseph Lippolis, an associate real estate broker with River Towns Real Estate in Peekskill. (Lippolis also serves on the local task force, alongside Puglisi.) “We don’t see any massive exodus from the area, and the area is at fair market value.”

Lippolis doesn’t foresee a future exodus, either: “You’re going to see a normal flow of home sales over the next several years,” he predicts. Lippolis says longstanding local perks — strong schools, proximity to the Hudson and Manhattan — will continue to prove alluring to buyers. He does, however, anticipate a hike in property taxes, which might prove burdensome to retirees in Buchanan and Cortlandt.

Might there be a real estate silver lining? Over the years, some families shopping for a new home have balked at the idea of living in the shadow of a nuclear power plant. Now, with Indian Point shutting down, might there be an influx? Lippolis doubts it: “It’s not like we’ve ever had homes that remained vacant because of Indian Point.”

 


photo courtesy of Entergy

 

How to Decommission a Nuclear Power Plant

Decommissioning Indian Point will be a meticulous and time-consuming process — for several years, experts will be on-site handling and carting away radioactive materials. According to Joe Delmar, senior director of Government Affairs and Communications at Holtec, the company being considered to be tasked with dismantling the plant, the decommissioning process breaks down into these five steps:

Turning it off. First up is taking the reactors offline. “Entergy will shut down Unit 2 by April 30, 2020, and Unit 3 by April 30, 2021, permanently defuel each reactor and place the used fuel in their respective spent-fuel pools.”

Dealing with the fuel. Then it’s time to transport that radioactive fuel. “Once sufficiently cooled, the fuel will be placed in stainless-steel and concrete canisters and transported to the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Facility on the Indian Point property.”

Dismantling. Holtec begins disassembling the facilities. “Radioactive equipment and components are dismantled per an approved decommissioning plan.”

Removal. In order for the Indian Point property to eventually become usable real estate, all these radioactive substances and parts need to be carted away. “Contaminated components are securely packaged and transported to a licensed off-site facility.”

Inspection. Last, the site has to meet government standards. “The site is inspected by state and federal agencies to ensure the property has been returned to conditions outlined in the decommissioning plans. Both the state and federal agencies will continue to monitor the site.”

 

Lawmakers, employees, and merchants aren’t rejoicing over the plant’s closure, but another demographic is: environmental advocates. For those touting ecological and safety concerns, Indian Point’s closure is cause for celebration. “We think it’s very good news,” says Richard Webster, legal director at Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog agency based in Ossining. “It’s had a huge impact on the environment; there’s a huge safety risk.”

The nonprofit — which protects the Hudson River and its offshoots — has come into conflict with the nuclear plant more than once. “We originally got involved with Indian Point because the cooling system was killing millions of fish,” Webster says. “It was having a major impact on the ecology of the Hudson.”

That first melee started in the early 2000s, but others followed. Webster continues: “As we looked at the plant more, we realized there were many other problems,” including earthquakes, apparently. “Turns out there were more faults than they thought,” he says. Degradation was another: “The bolts that hold the inside of the reactor together were fatigued and broken,” he says. Then, there was the problem of evacuation: “There’s very high population density around the area,” Webster explains, and in case of an accident, he believes, realistic evacuation would be “next to impossible.”

Webster makes clear that the closure doesn’t solve all environmental problems: “Some challenges remain the same, and there are some new ones.” The spent fuel in the reactors have to be carefully handled and stored, for example. “It’s very radioactive; it’s really unsafe to work around,” Webster explains. Riverkeeper is also a critic of Holtec, the company proposed to be purchasing and dismantling Indian Point. “Holtec in particular has some serious problems. They’re the worst entity out there to do the job,” Webster says, likely referencing bribery and corruption allegations that triggered a two-month debarment and $2 million administrative fee imposed on Holtec in 2010 by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). This followed an investigation by the TVA’s Office of the Inspector General that claimed Holtec made illegal payments to a TVA supervisor in Alabama in return for a contract to build a storage system for the facility’s spent nuclear fuel rods. Then, in 2014, Holtec CEO Kris Singh gave a false answer on an application to the state of New Jersey (for a $260 million tax break for a new power plant in Camden), having answered “no” to a question asking if the applicant had ever been barred from doing business with a state or federal agency. But in a statement to Westchester Magazine, a spokesperson for Holtec said: “In December 2010, the brief debarment was removed and Holtec was cleared of any wrong doing [sic]. TVA restored full business relationships with Holtec, including on October 1, 2012, awarding Holtec a ten (10) year contract valued at approximately $300 Million. TVA currently remains a valued client of Holtec today,” adding that the false answer was “an oversight” that Holtec had revised with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

When unpacking the economic and environmental impacts of the closure, one might overlook another big question: How do you replace 2,000 megawatts of electricity? Indian Point’s output — which is distributed throughout Con Ed’s infrastructure — is enough to power about 5% of the state, according to Riverkeeper. Where will that come from after April 2021?

“It does not appear that there will be a significant shortage in energy availability,” says Borgia, the county legislator. “The grid is very interconnected; if there’s a [local] shortage, we’re able to draw from other sources.” Borgia sees the shift as a chance to invest in renewable energy: “It’s an economic-development opportunity — [renewables] are a burgeoning field right now.”

When New York announced the closure in 2017, Governor Cuomo noted: “The state is fully prepared to replace the power generated by the plant at a negligible cost​ to ratepayers.” That “negligible cost” works out to about a net 1% increase on consumers’ electricity bills, according to a report by Synapse Energy Economics, an energy-research firm. The replacement energy could come from hydropower generated in Quebec, among other venues.

In March, residents got a small taste of life without Indian Point. During a partially unplanned two-week shutdown, the region drew power not from nuclear reactors but rather natural gas and renewables. “The grid’s operating fine without Indian Point, and we’ll have more than enough energy to compensate for its 2021 shutdown,” said Cliff  Weathers of Riverkeeper — which is a party to the shutdown agreement — during a March interview.

 

Borgia sees [the closure] as a chance to invest in renewable energy. “It’s an economic-development opportunity.”

 

Any breakup is tough — especially when the entities are a sprawling metropolitan area and a 50-year-old nuclear power plant. As Westchester untangles itself from Indian Point, all the major players are keen to avoid unnecessary fallout.

“We’re doing every single thing we can think of,” explains Puglisi, the Cortlandt supervisor. “I do not want this beautiful community to ever become distressed. I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that never happens.”

What may take even longer than sorting out the economic and energy impacts is the decommissioning — that is, dismantling those hulking gray domes and the nuclear equipment and waste within — which could take decades. Still, Westchester residents are willing to look that far in the future: “It’s very important that we clean up that area and get that acreage back for future uses and environmental uses,” Puglisi says.

Riverkeeper’s Webster is equally forward-looking: “Eventually we are going to be able to restore this site. In its time, it was the technological marvel of the day, but now, technology has moved on.”


Kevin Zawacki is a freelance writer living in Peekskill.

 

 

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