If Earth Matters, We Need Nuclear For Now

Pramilla Malick and James Hansen

One might say the earth took matters into her own hands. Shutting down the economic activity of human civilization, the deadly COVID pandemic has resulted in a 6% decrease in global carbon emissions. People, especially in cities, throughout the world are experiencing clear skies for the first time.

For those living in the epicenter of the global pandemic, New York City, and its surrounding communities, especially those afflicted by COVID, the oxygen provided by Earth’s natural ventilator is desperately needed.

But, this reprieve won’t last for long in New York, with the state just days away from the foolish plan to shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Once that switch is turned off, fossil fuels (mostly gas) will turn on and up. New York’s carbon emissions will skyrocket 10–15 million tons annually, by losing 80% of downstate New York’s carbon-free energy provided reliably by the plant for nearly 50 years. If that happens more people will unnecessarily die.

The rapid global impact of COVID should make clear how the human condition has changed. We are now one global community. What happens in Wuhan doesn’t stay in Wuhan. What happens in New York doesn’t stay in New York.

In responding to the COVID crisis, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo has demonstrated a prowess for data-driven decision-making. This is how all policies should be formulated, especially in matters of life and death. Here are two new studies that compel him to rethink his decision about Indian Point. Both indicate that IP’s closure will exacerbate the current COVID crisis, as well as climate change, an even greater crisis surpassing COVID by orders of magnitude.

A new analysis by the NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, finds methane levels at an all-time high at 1875 parts per a billion, the highest levels since record-keeping began in 1983. “Natural” gas is mostly methane which has 86 times the global warming potential of CO2 over a twenty-year time-frame. Most alarming, however, is that last year saw the single biggest increase in two decades. This accelerating rise in greenhouse gases is a fact that is now keeping climate scientists up at night.

Burning fossil fuels, including methane, spews invisible killers into the air, much like COVID-19. The most harmful of these in the near term is fine particulate matter. Fine particulates — especially those with a diameter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) — are particularly dangerous to the human body because they deplete lung capacity and pass from the lungs into the bloodstream. A new Harvard study just released shows that long-term exposure to even a small increase in pollution of just 1 microgram per cubic meter of PM 2.5 increases COVID mortality in a population by 15%. These results aren’t surprising. We know that comorbidities for COVID, such as hypertension, heart disease, & respiratory illness, are also associated with exposure to air pollution.

New York City is the second-largest consumer of power in the world, using 53 terawatt-hours of power annually. Contrary to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s promise that Indian Point’s closure will not increase carbon emissions, its 16.3 terawatt-hours of power will, in fact, be replaced by new and existing gas plants. Enough renewables have simply not been built. However, there are now three brand new gas-plants built to serve as replacements; the controversial CPV Valley Energy Center in Orange County, the Bayonne Energy Center in New Jersey, and the Cricket Valley Energy Plant in Duchess County. Generating the equivalent power from fossil fuels would increase the entire state’s electricity sector greenhouse gas emissions by 27–29%, rendering NY’s newly enacted climate goals impossible to achieve. The weight and enormity of this impact now rest on Cuomo’s shoulder unless he reconsiders his action.

Most methane used in NYS comes from fracking in neighboring PA. Governor Cuomo recently banned fracking (for the second time), citing the threats of air and water pollution that it posed to New Yorkers. According to Cornell scientist Anthony Ingraffea, the CPV plant alone will depend on 100–150 PA fracking wells per a year. However, just like the COVID virus, pollution does not recognize borders. Indian Point’s closure will plug NYC directly into PA fracking fields, ensuring that New Yorkers will face even greater adverse impacts from fracking, in spite of the ban.

But of course, the greatest impact will be on New Yorkers living near those gas power plants, communities of color, the same communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Data released by the CDC just days ago indicates that African-Americans represent 30% of COVID patients though they are only 14% of the population. Further analysis by the Associated Press found that 1/3 of all COVID deaths were African-American.

In Orange County, as COVID cases skyrocket the CPV plant prepares to ramp up when Indian Point is closed. CPV is surrounded by 14 environmental justice communities. Orange County is also home to a large number of NYC first responders who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID. Ironically, many of them moved to the area after 9/11, specifically for its once-pristine air quality. After losing a sustained battle to stop CPV, the community now monitors its air quality daily with devices that measure PM 2.5. They’ve seen levels spike to as high as 140 micrograms per cubic meter. When the plant is powered off, the meters read 0; a rare day when they can take a deep breath. With CPV prepared to provide 678 MW of Indian Point’s 2000 MW baseload power, it’s unlikely they will see days like that again.

In New York City, the dense housing projects in the shadows of Astoria Gen, East River Gen, and Ravenswood power plants already have some of the highest asthma rates in the country, comorbidity for COVID. They have some of the highest concentrations of COVID cases as well. Along with CPV, these dirty old power plants will likely be called upon to make up for IP’s lost electricity, especially when demand starts to peak as temperatures rise.

If “job one is saving lives”, as Governor Cuomo has said, then Indian Point must remain open. 52,000 people die prematurely every year in the United States due to pollution from fossil fuel power generation. Nuclear power saves lives. Globally, by displacing fossil fuels, nuclear power has prevented more than 2 million air pollution-related deaths. While Indian Point provides safe, reliable carbon-free baseload power, irrational fear peddled by fossil fuel interests has prejudiced public perception. As an ambassador of scientific truth, we urge Governor Cuomo to help correct that misperception.

“Give me the facts”, Cuomo said at a recent press conference. Facts are, indeed, the best antidote to irrational fear and anxiety. Although special interests groups such as Riverkeeper have spent years fear-mongering about Indian Point specifically, and nuclear power in general, these are the simple facts. And despite a recent slick ad campaign peddling pure fiction, celebrities are not scientists.

The inconvenient truth is that New York plans to shut down Indian Point years before it can even hope to build enough reliable renewable power to replace it, ensuring carbon lock-in for decades to come. It’s a catastrophic case of putting the cart before the horse. In the midst of a widespread pandemic and fast approaching climate collapse, it is a tragic blunder. Melissa De Rosa, Cuomo’s executive secretary, recently commented on the importance of “being able to evolve and change in real-time as facts and circumstances change”.

The science and math are clear. Pollution plus a pandemic requires keeping Indian Point open. We urge Governor Cuomo, Mayor DeBlasio, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all New York federal and state legislators, as well as all New York City Council-members, to use emergency powers to do so, no matter what it takes. Don’t allow lives to be sacrificed for fear, ignorance, and greed.

COVID-19 should caution us all that the laws of the natural world supersede the laws and desires of human beings; that we exist ultimately at their mercy. We cannot bend math and physics to our will. As Earth Day remembrance raises awareness of the looming crisis of climate change, we should use this opportunity to recalibrate and “evolve” within the mandates and limits of nature.

With all the political polemics about which human lives matter, as people sit in isolation during the Easter, Ramadan, and Passover holidays, they may want to reflect on this ultimate non-negotiable truth: Planet Earth matters to all of us.

Pramilla Malick, Chair, Protect Orange County

And

Jim Hansen, Director

Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program

Columbia University Earth Institute

Mother, Community Organizer, Environmental Activist, Chair, Protect Orange County