A raging debate over two aging nuclear reactors on the Hudson River is likely to electrify the race for New York's 17th District, where Republican plant proponent Joe Carvin is challenging Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey, who has fought for years to shut down the facility.
Lowey, who was in Japan 10 days before a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami crippled three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant last year, said the resulting radioactive releases and evacuations highlight the danger the Indian Point plant presents to the throngs of people living in New York City.
"In an area, in the 50-mile radius, God forbid an accident happens, you couldn't evacuate," she said in an interview this week. "It would be a disaster for the whole region."
But Carvin said keeping Indian Point open makes electricity prices reasonable and supports a homegrown fuel that bolsters national security. He said closing the plant would wipe out critical jobs -- 1,100 permanent and 200 contract positions -- and that the state should conduct an economic analysis before shuttering the reactors. And he is satisfied with their safe operation, saying the company has a solid evacuation plan in place.
"You have to analyze the economic impact on jobs and the impact on electricity costs and competitiveness and are you going to bring in coal-fired power plants that have a negative environmental impact," he said in an interview last week.
At issue is the potential relicensing of Entergy Nuclear's Indian Point facility, about 35 miles north of midtown Manhattan. Entergy is asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend the life of the licenses for an additional 20 years after they expire in 2013 and 2015, a proposal that has drawn the ire of environmental and anti-nuclear groups.
The plant, near Buchanan, N.Y., now sits in the newly reconfigured 17th District, including Rockland County and most of central and northern Westchester County. Political experts say the debate there will maintain a partisan flavor with GOP support for the plant opposing Democratic calls for its closure.
The November race could be tight. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the district at D+5, meaning that the average Democratic candidate would be expected to receive 5 percentage points more than the party at large. The score is relatively low for a blue state like New York.
Carvin is a wealthy, 57-year-old hedge fund manager and town supervisor for Rye in Westchester County who dropped his bid earlier this year to challenge Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for a seat in the Senate. He is running on a pro-jobs platform and touting his work as a banker at Deutsche Bank and a fund manager at Altima Partners.
Nance Shatzkin, a member of the Croton Democratic Committee in New York who lives 4 miles from the plant, said closing Indian Point is an intensely local issue and that Lowey will win because it resonates with residents living near the reactors. "Someone in favor of closing the plant energizes the voting base more than someone who's in favor of keeping the plant open," she said. "I don't believe there's a strong, untapped base of people desperate to keep the plant open."
Environmental groups have been lining up to support Lowey, who they say is a "Teflon incumbent" with 19 years of service under her belt.
But Michael Edelman, a GOP consultant in Westchester County, said Carvin's stance on the nuclear plant resonates with voters who are worried about jobs and don't want to see an increase in their electricity bills. "I don't understand why [lawmakers] like Nita are so willing to shift that cost to the average person in Westchester County," Edelman said, "with the economy the way it is, with the unemployment rate the way it is."
'Stacking the deck'
At the heart of the debate over Indian Point is the question of safety, jobs and whether the state can replace more than 2,000 megawatts of electricity that the reactors produce each year -- a third of the electricity needed to power the Big Apple and Westchester County.
Each side of the debate cites different studies and analyses that support its stance.
On one side, environmentalists and local interest groups say transmission upgrades, construction of clean generation and energy efficiency could pave the way for replacing the reactors without boosting power prices.
They point to an analysis from Synapse Energy Economics Inc., prepared at the request of environmental groups and released last year, that found New York would not need to replace Indian Point's output until 2020 (ClimateWire, Oct. 19, 2011).
A pair of legislative committees in Albany also concluded in February that the state could do without the nuclear power plant's contributions without undermining electricity production -- as long as the state pursues transmission upgrades, energy efficiency and adds new generation (E&ENews PM, Feb. 7).
Lowey is backing Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D) efforts to collect and review proposals to build new generation, transmission and pipelines in the state to create an "energy highway" -- one that doesn't include the nuclear power plant. Lowey said she is working with Cuomo and the New York congressional delegation to develop alternative energy production and transmission and to decommission Indian Point.
"I've been aggressively working on possibilities of [alternative uses for the plant]; I've been working on alternative energy sources," she said. "But that plant does not belong there."
Cuomo's Department of Environmental Conservation has denied Indian Point a Clean Water Act permit and has ordered the utility to build cooling towers to reduce the amount of water the plant is pulling from the Hudson River, a measure to protect fish and other aquatic life. Entergy has said the towers could cost $1 billion to build and has appealed the state's decision to a state administrative law judge.
On the other side, Entergy and lawmakers like Carvin have pointed to analyses that have found closing the plant would trigger an increase in electricity prices and air pollution and the potential for brownouts and blackouts.
Charles River Associates issued a report in August -- commissioned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection -- that said replacing the reactors in 2013 and 2015, when the units' current licenses expire, would raise wholesale electricity costs by about $1.5 billion per year, or roughly 10 percent. Customers in New York City would pay $300 million more per year for wholesale energy without Indian Point, the study found.
Jerry Nappi, a spokesman for Entergy, said the Charles River Associates study is an unbiased view of what the plant's closure would mean for the region. Entergy has invested $1 billion in safety upgrades since purchasing the units from the New York Power Authority in 2001. The reactors should be allowed to run for an additional 20 years, he said.
Carvin said the question is one of energy independence and fostering nuclear as a clean source of energy. Relicensing the Indian Point reactor will prevent the introduction of more dirty coal-fired power plants and bolster homegrown fuels, he said. And it keeps power prices low and jobs in the area, he said.
"I think that we have a real chance of achieving energy independence over the course of the next decade, and nuclear has to be a component of that," Carvin said.
Even so, Shatzkin of the Croton Democratic Committee says the reports ultimately lead back to politics, because each of the studies makes assumptions that fall in line with its ideology.
"I think that part of the problem is that all of those reports make assumptions in order to play out their predictions," she said. "So, obviously, there is room for stacking the deck or for interpretation."