by Michael Shellenberger
Next Monday, the state of New York may make climate change history.
That’s because the state’s Public Service Commission will vote on a measure that would not only prevent three nuclear power plants from being replaced by fossil fuels, it would also establish an important precedent that could be replicated across the U.S. and even Europe.
I will be at the meeting in Albany, New York, along with other pro-nuclear environmentalists organized by Environmental Progress (EP), to encourage the Commissioners to do the right thing.
Climate scientists and environmentalists organized by EP have over the last several months been championing the inclusion of nuclear in state Clean Energy Standards (CES) as a fair and equitable way to protect America’s largest source of clean energy.
If the Commissioners do the right thing, we will toast them along with Governor Andrew Cuomo and all other parties for making New York a climate change leader.
And after that, we will drive three hours to the northwest to toast an even more special group of people: the workers of Fitzpatrick nuclear power plant.
How Fitzpatrick Fought Back
If the CES becomes law, Fitzpatrick — known locally as just “Fitz” — which had been written off as dead, will likely survive. Discriminated against by federal and state policies, the plant’s operator, Entergy, announced it would have to close the plant by January 2017.
Sometimes, when the operator of a nuclear plant announces a closure, the workers just give up. Doing so is perfectly understandable: why try to keep a nuclear plant open that its operator plainly no longer wants?
But that wasn’t the reaction from Fitzpatrick workers. Instead, they fought back. They organized rallies, pressured their elected officials to intervene, and even attacked the plant's operator, Entergy.
The head of the local union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW Local 97) Ted Skerpon blasted Entergy, saying they were "using the FitzPatrick plant as a chip'' to pressure Gov. Cuomo to stop trying to shut down Indian Point, a more profitable nuclear plant near to Manhattan.
"Don't tell me it wasn't just a ploy,'' Skerpon told a reporter. "And if it wasn't, you know what, Entergy, step up and tell us what you were asking for. You're still hiding it. What are you asking for? What do you need?''
The union, the local community and elected officials pressured Entergy and the Governor's office to return to the negotiating table. But talks again broke down.
"It's Final," a local newspaper reported bluntly. "The fate of the James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in Oswego County has been decided. It will close."
Entergy blamed Cuomo for the closure of Fitz, noting that his proposed Clean Energy Standard would exclude Indian Point. "For several years we have advocated for a clean energy standard,'' an Entergy spokesperson said. "Unfortunately, whatever this program may turn out to be, it won't be in place in time to change the outcome for FitzPatrick.
The local congressman, who had fought for the plant, urged the community to "move forward with this difficult transition."
But the workers and the community were having none of it. "We're not taking that sitting down," Skerton said in a video. IBEW, the Oswego Industrial Development Agency and the Building Trades unions formed the Upstate Jobs Coalition, built support among elected officials, and ran ads to put pressure on Gov. Cuomo.
“This is something that requires the governor’s intervention," said the local mayor William Barlow Jr., who at 25 years is the youngest mayor in the state. "[W]e're grateful for the support he’s shown thus far but we really need him to help develop a more positive outcome."
The Coalition emphasized the loss of jobs, but they knew that jobs alone wouldn't be enough to save the plant. What makes nuclear plants special is that they emit no air pollution — no carbon emissions. And so they sought to include the plant in a Clean Energy Standard that included nuclear.
"The Governor and others have been on a big push to limit CO2 emissions from power plants," said state Assembly member William Barclay. "This is the perfect opportunity because nuclear doesn't emit CO2."
Sarah Spath, a nuclear engineer who used to work at Fitz but now works at neighboring Ginna, which will also be closed if the CES does not pass next Monday, spoke out eloquently for ending the discrimination against nuclear in New York, and again in California. “I am a life-long lover of Mother Earth and a whole-hearted soldier for sustainability," she said in her video testimony posted to Facebook that has since been viewed 30,000 times.
But Cuomo wanted to exclude Indian Point from the Clean Energy Standard for supposed safety reasons. The discriminatory treatment of Indian Point was hotly opposed by pro-nuclear environmentalists, including Environmental Progress.
Climate Scientists Defend Indian Point
In early April, while campaigning in New York, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called for closing Indian Point, which anti-nuclear groups have long sought to close.
The next day, climate scientist James Hansen spoke up strongly for Indian Point.
The last few weeks have seen an orchestrated campaign to mislead the people of New York about the essential safety and importance of Indian Point nuclear plant to address climate change. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has repeatedly certified the safety of Indian Point. The scaremongers have taken minor maintenance questions and wrongly suggested they point to significant problems with the plant.
A few days later, Environmental Progress challenged Cuomo's staff on its proposal to protect nuclear plants but exclude nuclear. “How does the governor justify supporting only the upstate nuclear power plants and not Indian Point,” Cesar Penafiel, Director of Analytics at Environmental Progress, asked Richard Kauffman, Cuomo's energy czar at meeting last April.
Then, in early June, EP sent an open letter to Cuomo signed by Hansen and dozens of respected climate scientists and environmentalists. We praised Cuomo's CES while criticizing his exclusion of Indian Point:
Dealing with climate change requires that 100 percent of our electricity derive from clean, low-carbon energy sources. We thus applaud your efforts to include nuclear in a new, clean energy standard (CES).... At the same time, we are troubled by your efforts to close the Indian Point nuclear plant and to exclude it from the CES.
We debunked the alleged safety concerns with Indian Point one by one. We concluded by noting:
Nuclear remains the safest way to make reliable clean energy according to every major scientific review, and yet it is treated as though the opposite were the case. All power plants require monitoring and maintenance but only nuclear plants attract the attention of policymakers and the media. The justification for the double standard is that nuclear is uniquely dangerous but all of the data, including of the worst accidents, show the opposite to be true.
Though it's not exactly clear how it might have affected the final outcome, it is notable that in June and July, Gov. Cuomo's plans for a major solar manufacturing push in upstate New York were unraveling. After the US Justice Department announced an investigation of alleged corruption, IBM and a major Japanese investor put on hold over $1.5 billion in investments, including in a Solar City manufacturing facility.
Finally, on July 8, the staff of the New York PSC released a revised Clean Energy Standard proposal that includes Indian Point.
The following week, Entergy announced that it was in discussions with Exelon to sell Fitz, contingent upon passage of the revised CES.
The CES is by no means a done deal. It is being opposed by the usual suspects, including NRDC, the Sierra Club and Riverkeeper — both of whom take money from energy corporations that stand to benefit from closing New York nuclear plants.
For that reason Environmental Progress submitted an official letter to the Commissioners — with an even larger group of signatories — and is mobilizing pro-nuclear supporters to come to Albany to urge Commissioners to do the right thing.
If they do the right thing for the climate and New York, there will be plenty of credit to go around.
The Commissioners and Gov. Cuomo will deserve credit for siding with the climate and communities against fear mongering special interest groups like NRDC, Sierra Club and Riverkeeper.
Entergy and Exelon will deserve credit for working out a win-win deal and transcending the scarcity mentality that accompanies low electricity demand growth.
Climate scientists — particularly Jim Hansen — and pro-nuclear environmentalists will deserve credit for standing up for the science against the anti-nuclear lobby not just in Albany but also Springfield, Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
But, in the end, I think special credit should go to the courageous workers of Fitz, the supportive elected officials and IBEW 97. Had they given up, then so too might have Gov. Cuomo, Entergy and Exelon.
In recognition of their leadership — a model of courage and tenacity for struggling nuclear plant workers and communities around the country — Environmental Progress will travel to Oswego to give the workers and their leaders the James Hansen Climate Courage Award.