Aerial view of the Indian Point nuclear power plant in the late 1960s. [Photo courtesy of Entergy]

Indian Point’s Unit 2 reactor ascended along the shores of the Hudson River in the late 1960s at a time of great optimism for the nuclear power movement in the U.S.

Engineers had just perfected a method to harness nuclear power that had gone into producing the atomic bomb used during World War II and turned it into a dependable, cost-effective energy source for homes and businesses. There was talk of building 200 reactors across the country.

The water-pressured Unit 2 reactor started generating power in 1974 and for decades to come, alongside its sister reactor Unit 3, the duo became workhorses, contributing enough energy to satisfy 25% of the electricity needs of Westchester County and New York City.

It chugged along even as anti-nuclear sentiment hardened following mishaps at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 dampened enthusiasm for nuclear power. It survived changes in ownership, unplanned shutdowns that attracted the attention of federal regulators, not to mention blackouts.

But in recent weeks, like an aging athlete who’s lost a step, Unit 2′s generating capacity has been lagging. On April 9, its capacity was 82% as the potency of fuel loaded two years ago loses energy.

On April 30, when capacity will be down around 65%, the 46-year-old reactor will power down for good. Around 11 p.m., a reactor operator in the control room will press a red button, stopping the reactor’s nuclear fission from occurring.

With that, the hour glass that will track Indian Point’s final year will be flipped.

Unit 3, which started generating power two years after Unit 2, will shut down around this time next year. Unit 1 shut down in October 1974 after 12 years producing power when federal regulators said its emergency cooling system was not up to standards.

In the end, it wasn’t anti-nuclear sentiment that led to the pending shutdown, although that was a factor. The Buchanan power plant’s owner, Louisiana-based Entergy, said costly legal challenges led by the state of New York made it difficult to continue.

But the cheap price of abundant natural gas, which has made it difficult for nuclear power to compete in the energy market, forced Entergy’s decision. Dozens of reactors across the U.S. have already shut down or are scheduled to in the coming years.

So, will anyone miss the reactor when it’s gone?

Lights won’t flicker. Phones will still have a ready source of power. The state’s energy grid will simply shift to other sources of energy.

And that’s where Unit 2′s absence may be felt the most.

‘People will die’

James Hansen, a former NASA scientist who was among the first to highlight the consequences of climate change, believes the shutdown is a wrongheaded decision that will open the way for the state’s greater reliance on fossil fuels.

“It is a foolish action that disrespects the well-being and the rights of young people,” said Hansen, who teaches at Columbia University. “The sensible approach, as renewable energy is developed and as energy efficiency is improved, is to first close down fossil fuel power plants.”

He added: “Many people will die because of the stupidity of this action, in which a nuclear power plant is closed before all fossil fuel power plants have been closed.”

Indeed, natural gas remains a ready source of energy in New York state and has filled in before when the energy produced by nuclear power leaves the grid.

Last year, The Journal News/lohud analyzed what happened when both of Indian Point’s reactors shut down — Unit 3 for a refueling and Unit 2 because of a malfunction on the non-nuclear side of the reactor. The analysis showed that natural gas picked up much of the slack.

A snapshot from a recent day offers some insight.

Around noon on Thursday, natural gas and dual fuel — either natural gas or other fossil fuels — contributed about 31% of the energy generated in New York while nuclear power was at around 33%, according to the New York Independent System Operator, which monitors the grid.

On Thursday, renewables’ share of the state’s energy output was at 36%, with most of that (29%) coming from hydropower generated from Niagara Falls. Wind power was at 5% and solar and other sources were at 1.7%.

This comes as demand for electricity has dipped dramatically in recent weeks, largely because of stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic that has forced businesses to shutter.

“Even when normalizing electric consumption data for weather, we have seen daily energy use down by nearly 8% during the last two weeks of March and into the first week of April,” said Rich Dewey, President and CEO of the NYISO.

Reductions were as high as 18% in New York City during the hours of 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., well below typical levels for this time of year.

Energy consumption ticks upward during the summer months when air conditioners run throughout the day.

What then? Will renewables start picking up more of the slack?

The Cuomo administration has committed to a goal of 70% renewable energy by 2030 and 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040.

And in his State of the State address, Cuomo announced plans for 21 large-scale renewable projects — large-scale solar, wind and energy storage — that will generate $2.5 billion in private investment in the coming years.

The projects will provide enough power for 350,000 homes.

“With these projects we will build on our aggressive strategy to combat climate change and lay a foundation for a more sustainable future for all New Yorkers,” Cuomo said last month.

Will Unit 2 be missed?

Jessica Azulay, the executive director of Alliance for a Green Economy, says renewables’ share of the grid has been increasing and says Unit 2′s shutdown will barely register.

“Indian Point’s output has not been needed for a long time,” Azulay said. “We don’t face any possibility of a power shortage when Indian Point shuts down, and the situation has been improving with additional demand reductions due to energy efficiency measures and more renewables coming online in the downstate area.”

She pointed to a recent study by the California-based Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, which suggested natural gas plants won’t even be needed when the grid loses the 2,000 megawatts of energy that Indian Point contributes to the grid.

“Had these facilities not been constructed, renewables, storage and energy efficiency alone could have feasibly met grid reliability needs following Indian Point’s closure,” the report said.

“The share of renewables and efficiency on the gird has been growing since the closure announcement in anticipation of Indian Point shutting down,” said Azulay. “And a lot more is coming. These resources will be more than enough to replace Indian Point and displace a lot of other dirty generation in the area.”

After Unit 2 shuts down on April 30, the spent fuel used to generate power will be transferred to a cooling pool where much of it will remain until the plant is sold. Entergy has a deal to sell the plant to Holtec International, a New Jersey-based company that says it will take up to 15 years to dismantle the reactors and decommission the plant. The sale is pending approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Holtec will move the spent fuel to steel and cement canisters on the site until the federal government comes up with a solution for storing the nation’s nuclear waste.

Concerns about the spread of the coronavirus mean the April 30 shutdown will be a low-key affair. Workers who were around for Unit 2′s early days had inquired about being at the site when the button is pushed.

But visits to the plant have been restricted.

“The coronavirus situation has curtailed some of the commemoration activities we had planned,” Entergy spokesman Jerry Nappi said.

By Thomas Zambito