9:01pm

Tue October 18, 2011
Energy

Fight Over Nuclear Plant Draws N.Y. Political Heavies

Originally published on Wed October 19, 2011 10:21 am

New York's political titans are clashing over the future of a controversial nuclear plant north of New York City.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to close the aging Indian Point nuclear plant because of safety concerns. But the plant, which wants to extend its original licenses for another 20 years, has some powerful allies of its own.

In Westchester County, about 35 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan, a handful of anti-nuclear activists holds a weekly protest against Indian Point. They stand by the side of a busy, two-lane road waving signs and calling for the plant to close.

Protester Marilyn Elie says a successful evacuation in the event of an accident is basically impossible because 20 million people live within 50 miles of the plant.

"We can't do rush hour twice a day — not easily and not well," Elie says, "let alone what would happen with an evacuation. Everyone else would want to get the hell out of dodge, and who could blame them?"

Occasionally, drivers honk in support while others make gestures that are definitely not friendly. But most just keep driving. Protests against Indian Point have been part of the landscape for decades. Lately, though, the issue has taken on new urgency for two reasons.

One is the disaster halfway around the world at Fukushima in Japan. The other is Cuomo, a first-term Democrat with a track record of getting what he wants. What Cuomo wants is to close the plant's two reactors when their licenses expire by 2015.

"As attorney general, I did a lot of work on Indian Point. I understand the power and the benefit," Cuomo said. "I also understand the risk, and this plant, in this proximity to New York City, was never a good risk."

But Cuomo isn't the only high-profile player in this drama. Entergy — the company that bought Indian Point just over a decade ago — is bringing out the big guns. It brought in former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to act as a paid celebrity spokesman.

"Like you, I want to do everything needed to keep New York safe and strong. The people at Indian Point do, too," Giuliani says in a TV commercial that started airing last week.

Entergy won't say how much it's paying Giuliani, but spokesman Jerry Nappi acknowledges that the company has a big investment to protect.

"Entergy ... has spent a billion dollars on safety and equipment enhancements at [Indian Point]," he said. "That's a large amount of money at this site to make sure equipment can operate safely for another 20 years."

Entergy has other high-powered friends as well. The plant accounts for roughly a quarter of the electricity consumed in New York City and Westchester. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says he thinks that power would be difficult to replace.

"If you closed Indian Point down today, we'd have enormous blackouts," Bloomberg said. "There is no alternative to the energy that we get from Indian Point. Four or five years from now, that probably is not going to be true."

The Bloomberg administration commissioned a study that found that retiring Indian Point would likely lead to more pollution from fossil fuels and higher energy prices. Even after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, a poll showed that 49 percent of New Yorkers want to keep the Indian Point plant running; 40 percent want it closed.

But in Westchester, though activists Dale Saltzman and Elie might not have many resources, they say they'll keep up the fight against Indian Point, no matter how much money the plant's owners spend to sway public opinion. As long as Cuomo is in office, Indian Point's opponents have one powerful ally in Albany.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In New York State, politicians are clashing over the future of a nuclear power plant. The popular Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to close the aging Indian Point plant north of New York City because of safety concerns. The plant's operators want to extend its original licenses for another 20 years. And as NPR's Joel Rose reports, they have some powerful allies of their own.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In Westchester County, about 35 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan, a handful of anti-nuclear activists holds a weekly protest against Indian Point. They stand by the side of a busy two-lane road waving signs calling for the plant to close. Margo Schepart brought her guitar and sang a song she wrote about the worst-case scenario.

MARGO SCHEPART: (Singing) The highways turned to parking lots from Albany to Queens, the politicians learned just what evacuation means. They frantically assembled all their staff for some contriving, but they couldn't get to Pleasantville, 'cause there was no driving.

ROSE: With 20 million people living within 50 miles of the plant, protester Marilyn Elie says a successful evacuation is basically impossible.

MARILYN ELIE: We can't do rush hour twice a day. You know, not easily and not well. Let alone what would happen with the shadow of evacuation. And everybody else would want to get the hell out of dodge. And who could blame them?

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES AND HORNS)

ROSE: Occasionally, a driver honks in support. Others make gestures that are definitely not friendly. But most just keep driving. Protests against Indian Point have been part of the landscape here for decades. Though lately, the issue has taken on a new urgency for two reasons. One is the disaster halfway around the world at Fukushima. The other is New York's governor.

Andrew Cuomo is a first-term Democrat with a track record of getting what he wants. And what Cuomo wants is to close the plant's two reactors when their licenses expire by 2015.

GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: As Attorney General, I did a lot of work on Indian Point. I understand the power and the benefit. I also understand the risk. And this plant, in this proximity to New York City, was never a good risk.

ROSE: But Cuomo isn't the only high-profile player in this drama. Entergy, the company that owns Indian Point, is bringing out the big guns.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN ENTERGY CORPORATION AD)

RUDY GIULIANI: That's clean, reliable and lower cost electricity that powers our region, and the greatest city on Earth...

ROSE: Entergy brought in former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to act as a paid celebrity spokesman. A TV commercial starring the prominent Republican started airing last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN ENTERGY CORPORATION AD)

GIULIANI: Like you, I want to do everything needed to keep New York safe and strong. The people at Indian Point do, too.

ROSE: Entergy, which bought the reactors just over a decade ago, won't say how much it's paying Giuliani. But spokesman Jerry Nappi admits the company has a big investment to protect.

JERRY NAPPI: Entergy, when they purchased Indian Point, has spent a billion dollars on safety and equipment enhancements at Indian Point. That's a large amount of money at this site to make sure equipment can operate safely for an additional 20 years.

ROSE: And Entergy has other high-powered friends. The plant accounts for roughly a quarter of the electricity consumed in New York City and Westchester. And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg thinks that power would be very difficult to replace.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Well, if you closed Indian Point down today, we'd have enormous blackouts. There is no alternative to the energy that we get from Indian Point. Four or five years from now, that probably is not going to be true.

ROSE: The Bloomberg administration commissioned a study which found that retiring Indian Point would likely lead to more pollution from fossil fuels, and higher energy prices. Even after the Fukushima disaster, a poll showed that 49 percent of New Yorkers want to keep the plant running, compared with 40 percent who want it closed.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES AND HORNS)

ROSE: Back in Westchester, activists Dale Saltzman and Marilyn Elie say they'll keep up the fight against Indian Point, no matter how much money the plant's owners spend to sway public opinion.

DALE SALTZMAN: Somebody just told me they heard the Entergy ad in Spanish.

ELIE: Oh, I'm not surprised.

SALTZMAN: Right...

ELIE: I'm not surprised.

SALTZMAN: ...because they have a lot of money to spend on public relations. We are a few people that stand vigil without a budget.

ROSE: They may not have a lot of money, but as long as Governor Cuomo is in office, Indian Point's opponents have one powerful ally in Albany.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.