Closing Indian Point Is Easy — What Happens Next Won't Be

Indian Point Energy Center in 2015.
Indian Point Energy Center in 2015.

Earlier this week, in a blizzard of announcements large and small, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he was finally shutting down Indian Point. The Westchester County nuclear plant, in operation for more than a half century, will be put out of commission in 2021. New York City won’t have to live in vague fear of nuclear annihilation. [Ed. Oh yeah?]

The fear of a meltdown is understandable, especially in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and the shuttering of Indian Point has been a goal long sought by many, including an ambitious governor now mulling a presidential bid. Indian Point currently provides a quarter of New York City and Westchester County’s electricity. Cuomo expressed confidence that in just a few years, this electricity can be replaced without utility bills skyrocketing.

But is there enough carbon-free energy right now to replace Indian Point? Robert Freudenberg, the director of energy and environmental programs for the Regional Plan Association, doesn’t think so. Ramping up wind farms, as Cuomo intends to do, is all well and good, but without a thorough plan in place to guide New York City into an Indian Point-free future, there’s the risk of the nation’s largest city being left with an insufficient energy supply.

There are other issues with the deal Cuomo struck with Entergy, the plant’s operator. Westchester County officials were blindsided, and were suddenly left to reckon with a potential loss of jobs and tax revenue. Why didn’t Cuomo keep Westchester in the loop, considering he lives in one of its tony towns, Mount Kisco?

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The answer is Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive. Astorino is a conservative Republican who ran a furious campaign for governor against Cuomo in 2014. Ever the political animal, Cuomo is capable of holding life-long grudges, often letting animus get in the way of sound policy.

Astorino is a vocal supporter of Indian Point and claims its tax revenue alone accounts for nearly 1 percent of Westchester’s tax base. Cuomo could’ve paid Astorino the courtesy of a phone call before such a momentous decision, but we know that’s not his modus operandi. He’s happy to make pronouncements concerning New York City on everything from the closure of subways to the spread of Ebola without consulting the mayor, Bill de Blasio. It’s a way to remind people he has more power than they do.

More important than the hurt feelings of a county executive or mayor is the future of Hendrick Hudson schools, a 2,400-student district that draws from villages and towns surrounding Indian Point. Taxes from the plant make up a third of the school’s operating budget. Given the existential threat a nuclear meltdown would pose, concerns over tax policy may seem parochial, but without consulting Westchester officials first, Cuomo has left a school district flat-footed as it now seeks to reckon with future budget shortfalls.

This is all the more glaring because Cuomo has capped property tax increases across the state, forcing school districts to cut costs elsewhere. Unless Cuomo truly jettisons the conservative within and allows counties to raise the revenue they require, the Hendrick Hudson school district could be facing fiscal calamity.

Like many of Cuomo’s far-reaching proposals, the closure of Indian Point should be, for the most part, commended. But like those same proposals, including eliminating college tuition for working and middle class families, the Indian Point deal is too short on specifics. Some of that can be explained away — politicians don’t like to tip their hand — but there’s a cynical play for headlines that’s hard to ignore.

If Cuomo can close down a nuclear power plant and cleanly replace all the electricity it generates, kudos to him. Politicians should never be criticized for lacking ambition. What really matters is what comes next — when the headlines fade, the White House dreams meet a crueler reality, and a vast metropolitan region greets an uncertain, nuclear-free future.


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