Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, NY. SETH WENIG/AP/SHUTTERSTOCK
When Deb Milone looks at the soon-to-close Indian Point Energy Center, standing sentinel on a promontory above the Hudson River, she sees a future business campus, manufacturing hub, or some other revenue generator.
“It’s 90 acres, and it’s a huge amount of tax loss to us,” said Milone, the executive director of the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce. “My hope is that we can get it decommissioned, get it cleaned and bring new businesses or new technologies to that area, bring jobs, and support our local business communities.”
Listen to Fred Mogul’s report on WNYC:
When Courtney Williams looks at Indian Point, she sees a permanent nuclear waste storage center – and she wants to make sure it’s built and outfitted properly.
“We need to stop worrying about reusing the property and first focus on how we’re going to safely use it to store this waste,” said Williams, a cancer researcher and local activist, during a recent Sunday morning walk along the Hudson. “Everyone’s focusing on how quickly we can do this. That’s putting the cart before the horse.”
Originally opened in 1962, Indian Point is scheduled to be shut down in April of 2021. Then it will be decommissioned, a long process that includes dismantling the reactors, storing the waste safely and restoring the site. Milone wants a company called Holtec International to do the decommissioning, and Williams wants anyone but Holtec to take on the project.
State officials in Albany share many of the concerns of Williams and other environmental advocates about Holtec, which late last year applied to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for permission to acquire Indian Point from its current owner, the Entergy Corporation. They say Camden, New Jersey-based Holtec has never decommissioned a nuclear power plant; has a spotty record on safety in its core business, nuclear waste storage; and has run afoul of state and federal authorities for financial irregularities.
They also say Holtec’s Canadian partner, SNC-Lavalin – which would be responsible for much of the actual dismantling – also raised red flags. The company recently pleaded guilty to fraud, for kickbacks in a construction subsidiary in the first decade of the century. The scandal nearly brought down the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year.
“To anyone looking at this from a common-sense perspective, [Holtec is] not incentivized to do a thorough job, they’re incentivized to maximize profit,” a state government official told Gothamist/WNYC.
Cuomo administration officials would not speak on the record, because they are reviewing Holtec’s application to the NRC and trying to insert the state into a largely federal review process – a role that Holtec and Entergy are challenging.
“Holtec and SNC-Lavalin possess a combined 60 years’ expertise in decommissioning project management, nuclear fuel handling and site remediation,” Holtec spokesman Joe Delmar said by email. “Contrary to what a select few have stated, we are going to do what’s right for the local community and New York by conducting the safe and efficient decommissioning of Indian Point that will create a safe environment that enables the land to be suitable for reuse.”
In the past, when plants went off-line, the utility companies that owned the reactors had to dismantle them safely and store all that spent uranium. Holtec is pioneering a new approach: coming from the outside, buying up soon-to-shutter facilities, and dismantling them, a batch at a time.
“They bid on it, and they say, ‘We can get this done for, you know, X amount.’ And then whatever the delta is, they get to pocket the delta,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.
Healey is suing the federal government for “failing to provide the Commonwealth with a meaningful opportunity to participate” in the vetting of Holtec before the NRC approved its purchase of Yankee Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station last summer.
“We still have real concerns about this company’s technical ability to do this in a safe way,” Healey told WGBH.
The concerns are also financial, in Massachusetts, New York, and every place nuclear plants are being bought to be dismantled. Each facility comes with a trust fund that previous owners set aside over the life of the plant for eventual decommissioning. But the NRC’s own Inspector General and outside experts have said the trust funds are chronically insufficient to cover the cost of decommissioning, leaving states worried about picking up the tab.
“We’re afraid that there isn’t enough money in the trust fund,” Healey said. “This is a significant undertaking, and we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars.”
At Indian Point, there’s about $1.7 billion set aside to decommission three nuclear reactors. (Two are active, and one was retired in 1974.) In 2010, the NRC estimated that decommissioning just one reactor, Unit 3, would cost $1.1 billion “in 2010 dollars.” Among the small handful of plants that have already been decommissioned in the U.S., several had hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of cost overruns.
Another catch: Holtec and SNC-Lavalin are the joint-venture parent companies behind takeovers in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Michigan and, potentially, New York. But each project is structured as an independent corporation, shielding the two firms from financial liability if anything goes wrong.
John Williams, a vice-president at the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority said the state “is doing its due diligence to ensure that Holtec maintains full financial responsibility for the entire project and provides appropriate financial assurance to safeguard completion of the project, should the decommissioning trust funds be insufficient.”
The appeal of Holtec is straightforward: they say they can get the job done relatively quickly, releasing some of the site and restoring it by around 2034, according to a timeline that’s subject to change. The NRC would allow Entergy to take up to 60 years to complete decommissioning.
But watchdogs say New York shouldn’t be seduced by the promise of an accelerated timeline.
“The goal is to get it done as soon as possible, but it’s not worth everything,” said Michael Dworkin, who was chairman of Vermont’s Public Service Board and helped oversee the sale of a local nuclear power plant. “A bad job done fast is not as good as a good job done slow.”
Although the approval process is overwhelmingly controlled by the federal government, Dworkin said states nonetheless have a lot of power. They can attach strings that protect their citizens, or even reject would-be purchasers, as Vermont has done. But in order to flex their muscles, Dworkin said, states have to be prepared to fight long and hard in federal court.
“The utility commission has to have the gumption and backbone to be willing to say no if it’s not satisfied,” he said, referring to New York’s Public Service Commission.
New York State Senator Pete Harckham (D-Westchester) said he and many of his fellow legislators are urging the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo to take a more active role in the approval process.
“Not a lot of folks have a great deal of confidence that the NRC is watching out for the best interests of the local community and the environment and the ratepayers,” he said.
There’s a local citizens oversight board, but he wants the legislature to create a body that can exert stronger authority over the decommissioning process, whether it’s Holtec or a different company that eventually does the work. It would be modeled after the Safety Advisory Panel created in New Jersey by Governor Phil Murphy to monitor Holtec’s work at Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, near Toms River in Ocean County.
“We need to have a robust state involvement, with boots on the ground,” Harckham said, “to make sure this is done safely and with it an eye toward protecting the communities and the ratepayers.”
By Fred Mogul