The Nuclear Option documentary by USA Today Network Northeast
An in-depth look at the end of the nuclear power industry as we know it, and what lies ahead for the communities where plants are powering down. Michael V. Pettigano, Paul Wood Jr and John Meore, Rockland/Westchester Journal News

At the end of this month of April, the Indian Point 3 utility nuclear reactor will close. Unit 3 was commissioned in August 1976. It has operated for roughly 45 years in Buchanan, which is 35 miles north on the Hudson River from New York City.

The closure of any of the remaining utility reactors in the U.S. (and around the world) should be cause for celebration. I have worked with various environmental groups since the early 1990s in opposition to utility reactors. These include Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition, Radiation and Public Health Project and Riverkeeper.

Work to replace the fuel rods at Indian Point 3 as well as the replacement, refurbishment and testing of equipment is underway as part of routine maintenance of the nuclear reactor in Buchanan on Mar. 20, 2017. The Journal News File Photo

Since the defunct Long Island Lighting Company was able to torment and gouge its rate payers by building, commissioning, decommissioning and eventually closing and disassembling its failed Shoreham project on Long Island, I have been keenly interested in the games public utilities have played in their ceaseless quest to sell nuclear power as clean and safe. The lies that have been told are mind-numbing. The assertion that nuclear power is clean is outrageous. The mining of uranium alone is horrifically toxic. Furthermore, fuel rods don’t grow on trees. They are processed at facilities that use tremendous amounts of energy and release significant amounts of carbon.

Nuclear power is neither clean nor safe. And one does not need a Fukushima-, Chernobyl-, or 3 Mile Island-magnitude event to come to that conclusion. Some of the problems with nuclear power are widely known and have been from the beginning, such as spent fuel disposal, an issue that remains unaddressed to this day. Such concerns have been accepted and, typically, overlooked out of our need to produce the enormous amounts of power with which we run our economy. Over the years, other challenges developed, such as the potential for terrorist and cyber attacks on operating reactors and spent fuel in storage. Both contain highly lethal levels of radiation, meaning that a successful attack could devastate a massive area.

Alec Baldwin hosts a panel discussion at Rockland Community College about the dangers of the Indian Point nuclear power plant as part of a fundraiser for the Radiation and Public Health Project Oct. 4, 2013. ( Peter Carr / The Journal News )

When fracking was unleashed on the U.S. by former Vice President Dick Cheney, the resultant flow of abundant (albeit questionable as to its environmental impact) natural gas had an unintended consequence. Nuclear power would now add the word “overpriced” to its list of liabilities. Although it felt like the home invasion was thwarted when the attacker slipped on your kid’s skateboard and broke his leg, those of us who have preached for a few decades now that utility reactors have never even come close to meeting their promise begrudgingly welcomed this development. 

You remember that promise, don’t you? No? The one made by Lewis Strauss, former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, back in 1954. Strauss said that nuclear power would be “too cheap too meter.” And had that been true, you might have had another 1,000 reactors built in this country alone. But that turned out to be false. Nuclear power is one of the most expensive forms of power known. And that is unlikely to change, as renewables slowly, steadily make their assault on dirtier and more expensive forms of energy production. 

Alec Baldwin hosts a panel discussion at Rockland Community College about the dangers of the Indian Point nuclear power plant as part of a fundraiser for the Radiation and Public Health Project Oct. 4, 2013. ( Peter Carr / The Journal News )

The U.S. and the world will not conquer its dependence on fossil fuels in 25 years, but at least New York state has decided to do it by 2050. The need to rapidly eliminate that dependence will drive increasing innovation and ever lower prices for renewable energy. Renewables will form the basket of resources that will power the world. Coal (too dirty) and nuclear (too expensive and too dirty) will die first, followed by fracked gas and oil. Shutting down the toxic sites (both through decommissioning and decontamination) will cost staggering amounts of money. The prospect of properly handling the eventual closure of every nuclear utility reactor in America seems overwhelming. But that process, a necessary one, can only begin with results like we see in Buchanan. The reactor’s owners have worked hard to stoke fear in the area; fear of increased rates, fear of increased carbon emissions, fear of power shortages. As the facility’s fate was sealed, one could expect anything from the industry, manifesting their own fear that the age of nuclear power is in the end game stage.

A simulation control room that mirrors the one at Indian Point 2 at Indian Point at the Energy Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan on Mar. 20, 2017. Ricky Flores/The Journal News

Indian Point 3 is closing. Let’s raise a glass to everyone who was brave and worked hard to make that happen. Let’s push renewables to their outermost boundaries. Every public works project. Every government office, school, college, hospital, train station, airport — you name it. Let’s not simply turn off nuclear power suppliers. Let’s turn on renewables in a way that will remind us, daily, what an awful idea nuclear energy was all along.

By Alec Baldwin