Climate Scientists, Scholars & Environmentalists Open Letter to Governor Cuomo Regarding Indian Point

June 06, 2016

The Honorable Andrew Cuomo
Governor of New York
Albany, New York

Dear Governor Cuomo,

We are writing as scientists and conservationists concerned about the future of New York’s nuclear power plants. Dealing with climate change requires that 100 percent of our electricity derive from clean, low-carbon energy sources. We thus applaud your efforts to include nuclear in a new, clean energy standard (CES). We encourage you to go further and set a target of 100 percent clean energy and allow all sources of clean power whether solar, wind, nuclear or fossil energy with carbon capture and storage to compete on a level playing field. 

At the same time, we are troubled by your efforts to close the Indian Point nuclear plant and to exclude it from the CES. Indian Point produced 12 percent of New York State’s total in-state electricity generation in 2015, 21 percent of its clean generation and four times more electricity than all of New York’s wind turbines. While wind and solar generate electricity intermittently, Indian Point produces much-needed reliable power.

According to the white paper issued by New York’s Department of Public Service, the elimination of upstate nuclear power "would eviscerate the emission reductions achieved through the State's renewable energy programs, diminish fuel diversity, increase price volatility, and financially harm host communities." All of this is true — and even more so for Indian Point, the most productive nuclear plant in the state.

If closed prematurely, Indian Point’s electricity will be replaced overwhelmingly by natural gas from fracking, a practice New York has banned. Replacing Indian Point with gas would cause at least an extra 6.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year, an emissions increase over twice as large as New York’s mandated emissions reduction under the EPA’s Clean Power Plan[i]. And New York’s dependence on natural gas would rise along with normal leaks of methane, a gas that causes more warming than carbon dioxide per unit mass.  

We urge you to reconsider your criticisms of Indian Point and the implication that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is not doing its job. The NRC is an independent and effective agency governed by bi-partisan chair and commissioners selected by the President and Congress, has "resident inspectors" on-location, and staff members who are well-trained and remunerated. NRC has an independent Inspector General’s office which enforces strong laws and strong ethics rules. NRC staff, including the three on-site inspectors at Indian Point, along with nuclear plant workers, have whistle-blower protections that go above and beyond other industries and regulatory agencies. Indeed, the recent decision by NRC commissioners that over-ruled a lower body’s decision and required that NRC staff re-evaluate some parts of Indian Point’s accident mitigation analysis underscores the agency’s independence and commitment to safety, as well as the checks and balances inherent to our nuclear regulatory system.

The high level of transparency around the operation and maintenance of nuclear plants is abused when normal events are stripped of their context and made to seem like signs that the regulatory system is failing when it is in fact working well. There are at least three recent examples of this.

First, the recent leak of tritium from Indian Point demonstrated both the efficacy of nuclear regulations and the overall safety of nuclear energy and yet was widely interpreted as demonstrating the opposite. Tritium is a naturally occurring, mildly radioactive isotope. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the safe limit of tritiated water at 20,000 picocuries per liter. The worst leak of tritium in US history was from Braidwood nuclear plant in Illinois, and it was of 1,600 picocuries per liter. Because the tritium in groundwater at Indian Point does not flow to off-site drinking water sources, the level of leaked tritium was effectively zero picocuries per liter. As such, the regulatory system worked precisely as it should.

Second, last December, Indian Point shut down automatically after equipment detected external transformer failures and minor damage to transmission lines, just as it was designed to do. Here again, rather than being treated as a sign that the system worked as it was designed, the incident was treated as a sign of an underlying problem.

Third, the recent discovery of cracked baffle bolts was the outcome of NRC-mandated inspections that are part of the plant’s regular management program. That program is designed to find and repair degraded equipment before a breakdown can occur. As such, the program worked.

Nuclear remains the safest way to make reliable clean energy according to every major scientific review, and yet it is treated as though the opposite were the case. All power plants require monitoring and maintenance but only nuclear plants attract the attention of policymakers and the media. The justification for the double standard is that nuclear is uniquely dangerous but all of the data, including of the worst accidents, show the opposite to be true.

If New York is to make progress in decarbonization goals, it cannot abandon nuclear power, including Indian Point. Failure to protect New York’s largest source of carbon-free electricity would negate the benefits of increased renewable energy. Allowing Indian Point to continue contributing to New York's greenhouse gas reduction goals would establish you as a responsible leader in safeguarding clean air today and the climate for future generations. 


Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Joseph Fargione, Ph.D, ecologist

James Hansen, Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions Program, Columbia University, Earth Institute, Columbia University

Chris Johnson, Professor of Wildlife Conservation, University of Tasmania, Australia

David W. Keith, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics, Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University

David W. Lea, Professor, Earth Science, University of California

Michelle Marvier, Professor, Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University

Raymond Pierrehumbert, Halley Professorship of Physics, University of Oxford

Joe Mascaro, Program Manager for Impact Initiatives, Planet Labs

Robert May, Oxford OM AC Kt FRS, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

Peter H. Raven, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden. Winner of the National Medal of Science, 2001

Frank M. Richter, Sewell Avery Distinguished Professor of Geophysics, The University of Chicago

Jeff Terry, Professor of Physics, Illinois Institute of Technology

Scholars, Conservationists and Environmentalists

John Asafu-Adjaye, PhD, Senior Fellow, Institute of Economic Affairs, Ghana, Associate Professor of Economics, The University of Queensland, Australia

Frank Batten Jr., President, The Landmark Foundation

Barry Brook, Professor and Chair of Environmental Sustainability, University of Tasmania

Tom Blees, President of The Science Council for Global Initiatives

Mark S. Boyce, Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife, University of Alberta

Stewart Brand, founder, Whole Earth Catalogue

Jeremy Carl, Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Gwyneth Cravens, author, Power to Save the World

John Crary, Crary Family Foundation

Christopher Foreman, author, The Promise & Peril of Environmental Justice, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland

Valerie Gardner, President, Climate CoalitionKirsty Gogan, Executive Director, Energy for Humanity

Gene S. Grecheck, President, American Nuclear Society

Garrett Gruener, Managing Director, Gruener Ventures

Mel Guymon, Guymon Family Foundation

Steve Hayward, Professor, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

Ben Heard, President, Decarbonise South Australia

Joseph B. Lassiter, Senior Fellow, Senator John Heinz Professor of Management, Practice in Environmental Management, Harvard Business School

Pushker Kharecha, Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions Program, Columbia University, Earth Institute, Columbia University

Steve Kirsch, CEO, Token

Andrew Klein, Professor in the Nuclear Science & Engineering Department, Oregon State University

Charles J. Krebs, Emeritus Professor, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia

Joe Lassiter, Professor, Harvard Business School

John Lavine, Professor and Medill Dean Emeritus, Northwestern University

Martin Lewis, Department of History, Stanford University

Mark Lynas, author, The God SpeciesSix Degrees

Steve McCormick, Former CEO, The Nature Conservancy

Richard Muller, Professor of Physics, University of California, Berkeley; Co-Founder and Scientific Director, Berkeley Earth

Reed F. Noss, Provost's Distinguished Research Professor, Department of Biology, University of Central Florida

Carl Page, President, Anthropocene Institute

Steven Pinker, Harvard University, Better Angels of Our Nature

Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize recipient, author of Nuclear Renewal and The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Paul Robbins, author, Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction; Director, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin

Rachel Pritzker, Pritzker Innovation Fund

Samir Saran, PhD, Vice President, Observer Research Foundation, India

Peter Schwartz, author, Art of the Long View

Michael Shellenberger, President, Environmental Progress

Robert Stone, co-founder, Energy for Humanity

Barrett P. Walker, Alex C. Walker Foundation

cc: Senator Charles Schumer, Senator Kirsten Gillebrand, Congresswoman Nita Lowey, New York Senate President John J. Flanagan, New York House Speaker Carl Heastie, New York Senator Terrence P. Murphy, New York Assemblywoman Sandy Galef. 

[i] Assuming replacement of Indian Point’s 16.3 terawatt-hours per year of electricity production by natural gas-fired power with a carbon intensity of 406 grams per kilowatt-hour.