Buchanan NY’s Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant closed in 2021, dying a death of a thousand paperwork cuts over 40 years at the hands of non-profit organizations like Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson, and politicians like Governor Andrew Cuomo and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. This has been to the detriment of the tax base of Buchanan, the electricity consumers of New York, and the state’s supposed climate goals (fossil fuels replaced all of the carbonless electricity produced by the plant).
One of the biggest questions around the plant’s closure was the fate of the 1,000+ strong workforce directly employed at Indian Point. The opponents of the plant, like Cuomo, State Senator Pete Harckham, Riverkeeper, the National Resource Defence Council (NRDC) and more, have been champions of a policy called “Just Transition” for the workforce, by replacing their lost jobs by guaranteeing them a place in the decommissioning process.
“In the CLCPA, we talk about a ‘just transition,’ ” said Senator Peter Harckham (D-Peekskill). “This [the closure of Indian Point] is going to be the poster child for that.”
In 2019, Harckham introduced legislation that “require[s] whoever is doing the decommissioning to hire from the facility and pay workers what they were being paid,” he said, reaffirming the commitment months later in 2020.
Another prominent voice was Kit Kennedy, the Managing Director of the NRDC:
“We also need to ensure that the community around Indian Point and the workers at the plant are supported in the transition to a future without Indian Point.”
Riverkeeper, which spearheaded the fight to close the plant, wrote in 2017 that a “thorny, vital but as yet unanswered question” included how to “achieve a just transition for plant workers and surrounding communities to life after Indian Point.”
Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, another long-time adversary to the plant, wrote “it’s time to turn our focus to ensuring economic and workforce development… includ[ing] retaining workers with valuable institutional knowledge and technical skills, and retraining and placement in similar industries.” Their environmental director, Manna Jo Greene, added “we have to get to work, put the plan into place, find the financing and create those wonderful jobs. That’ll be part of the solution.”
With all of the various stakeholders assured that jobs would be protected, in 2021, Holtec, New York State, Westchester County, the Town of Cortlandt, the Village of Buchanan, Hendrick Hudson School District, the Public Utility Law Project and Riverkeeper all collectively entered and supported a Joint Proposal to the Public Service Commission that affirmed that “Holtec’s decommissioning plan yields considerable economic, social and environmental benefits to the surrounding community.”
The Tritium Conspiracy Theory
One of the linchpins of the decommissioning of nuclear plants is the safe and legal disposal of “liquid effluent water” which contains a minuscule amount of a radioactive substance called tritium. Tritium is used in glow-in-the-dark items like exit signs and dials in watches. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Tritium is “produced naturally in the atmosphere when cosmic rays strike atmospheric gases… release of tritium from [nuclear reactors] are at fractions of the natural background production rates.”
The amount of radiation exposure that the average American receives from living near a nuclear plant that is disposing of liquid effluent is minuscule: someone could drink a liter of water directly from the liquid effluent tank, and receive a dose of radiation equivalent to eating 10 bananas. Taking a cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles exposes passengers to the equivalent of drinking tritiated water every day for a year.
For 60 years, Indian Point discharged liquid effluent water into the Hudson River at a concentration that was 1/100th or below the legally required limits. In 2023, Holtec was scheduled, as per their decommissioning plan, to release 1.3M gallons of tritiated water into the Hudson River, a tiny fraction of a fraction of what has already been harmlessly released.
In a stunning betrayal of the “Just Transition” promised for Indian Point union workers, every nearby environmental organization and related politicians fearmongered about the tritiated water releases in an ignorant and unscientific Orwellian campaign to further demonize nuclear energy. They insisted on a costly alternative of storing the water onsite, a move that delayed decommissioning by eight years, caused 138 layoffs right before Christmas, and went against the advice of the workers working on the plant and the wishes of the town where the plant is located.
The president of Riverkeeper said that the safe discharges were “an affront to the people who love the Hudson but fear for their health and the damage tritium discharges can bring to the river and to their communities.” Hudson River Sloop Clearwater called for the “Save the Hudson Bill” to be signed into law, which would prevent any radioactive material from decommissioning nuclear power plants to be released into the Hudson. And Pete Harckham, who said just three years ago that the Indian Point decommissioning would be the “poster child” for Just Transition, authored the State Senate version of the Save the Hudson Bill that would be responsible for laying off 138 workers at Indian Point.
“This bill may be well intentioned, but it would stop the decommissioning of Indian Point and lead to substantial long-term job losses in the Hudson Valley. The concerns raised by the bill’s sponsors have been addressed, and the EPA has developed environmentally conscious procedures that our members are following closely. A handful of misguided activists from outside our community shouldn’t be allowed to stop a worthy project that is providing critical blue collar jobs.”Bill Banfield, spokesperson for the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters
Governor Kathy Hochul signed the bill into law on August 18, 2023, and the layoffs came right around Christmas.
With the bill passed, there is now no pragmatic solution on what to do with the water. As such, the decommissioning work is largely now delayed until a solution can be found. With up to an eight year delay, this means that certain contractors cannot move to the next project and instead will just be laid off. This will also delay the handover of the property to the Town of Buchanan, delaying any opportunity to start the site’s next chapter.
The activists’ preferred solution is to “store on site.” This will put the water in casks to wait at least one tritium half life (12 years) so that it can be released in a less radioactive state. However, the Town of Buchanan passed a resolution in July favoring discharges into the Hudson River, and banning the storage of the water on site.
When this topic first came to public forum, New York Energy Alliance was in a superminority calling for the discharges going forward unimpeded (20 for vs. 120 against by our count).
Now that the chickens are coming home to roost and the negative consequences of an avoidable delay have revealed themselves, the greens are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They want to still be seen as the good guys standing up for the environment against the big bad company while deflecting the blame that they caused the jobs to be lost, at Christmas no less. We stand with labor, Holtec, the Town of Buchanan, and other sensible citizens in continuing to call out this charade.