More and more, nuclear energy is recognized as part of a clean power portfolio. Surprisingly, the country’s third most populous state, New York, is diminishing its options in this regard.

Despite attempts by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to keep it open, energy company Entergy announced plans last November to close the James A. FitzPatrick nuclear power plant, near Syracuse. The facility employs more than 600 people, about 300 of whom are Syracuse, N.Y., Local 97 members, said Business Manager Ted Skerpon.

The three plants combined represent over 3,300 megawatts of capacity. The FitzPatrick plant alone generates 838 megawatts of nearly carbon-free electricity, enough to power more than 800,000 homes.

“They want to go carbon-free but they are taking out the plants that help the state do just that,” said Skerpon, who also chairs the IBEW Utility Labor Council of New York. “We’re trying to show the public and the politicians what is going on, what these plants really mean for New York.”

At issue are three of the Empire State’s four nuclear power plants. One is already slated to close, the R. E. Ginna plant. If FitzPatrick closes too, that will leave just one, the Nine Mile Point station, on Lake Ontario’s eastern shores.

Discussions about the fate of these plants come at the same time that states are scrambling to meet new clean energy standards mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA issued a rule in October that requires states to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from existing power plants. The final version of the rule, also known as the Clean Power Plan, would reduce national electricity sector emissions by an estimated 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. New York is required to reduce emissions by 20 percent.

The rule was challenged in court, including by the IBEW, and the Supreme Court issued a stay in February, barring the EPA from enforcing the requirements until a final decision is made.

The labor council, along with the northern New York building trades, recently commissioned a report to look at the impact of closing these plants, both economic and environmental.

Conducted by economic consulting firm The Brattle Group, the study analyzes the likely impact of closing the FitzPatrick plant as well as the R.E. Ginna and Nine Mile Point nuclear generating stations. The Ginna and Nine Mile Point stations are owned by Exelon. Ginna is scheduled to close when a contract runs out in 2017, said RTO Insider.

Fitzpatrick and Nine Mile are located right next to each other, about five miles apart. Ginna is approximately 65 miles to the east.

The closing of the Fitzpatrick nuclear power plant in upstate New York, pictured would result in layoffs for Syracuse, N.Y., Local 97 members as well as difficulties replacing the energy source.
Image credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The Brattle report found that the three plants avoid almost 16 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually and account for 61 percent of carbon-free generation and 42 percent of carbon-free capacity in upstate New York.

Additionally, the three plants combined represent over 3,300 megawatts of capacity and nearly 26 million megawatt hours of annual electricity generation. Absent this nuclear energy source, says the report, New York’s economy would rely more heavily on existing natural gas-fired plants and the increased reliance on fossil fuel generation would result in higher electricity rates, as well as carbon emissions. The FitzPatrick plant alone generates 838 megawatts of nearly carbon-free electricity, enough to power more than 800,000 homes.

Nuclear plants also need far less maintenance than natural gas or coal plants, run more reliably than renewables and due to the steady power generating capacity of nuclear generation, smooth out voltage delivery across the grid.

The FitzPatrick, Ginna and Nine Mile Point plants also account for about 24,800 full time jobs, direct and secondary, which contribute approximately $3.16 billion to state gross domestic product, said the report. Their effect on the economy translates to about $144 million in additional state tax revenues and $576 million in federal tax revenues – well beyond any alternative electric supply that New York would use in the event of the plants closing.

FitzPatrick and Ginna are two of 11 plants that IBEW identified in 2013 as being at risk of closing, though not for safety or production reasons. A changing energy market that drastically lowered the price of natural gas and the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011 are working against the U.S. nuclear market.  

As the need for electricity isn’t likely to wane, whatever replaces these plants would have to be another type of base load energy, like natural gas. Base load energy is the minimum amount of electric power that is required over a given period at a constant rate. Wind and solar are not considered base load since they do not have the same reliable output as nuclear or gas.

Nearby states or Canada could supply electricity to the state, but that would mean less energy independence. Offshore wind has been proposed, but it is expensive to build and would encounter numerous societal and regulatory hurdles, Skerpon said.

The most likely scenario though, is that natural gas would be used to fill the energy void, said the report. And with this increased reliance on fossil fuels, New Yorkers would see higher electricity bills along with more carbon emissions. 

Closing Down Upstate New York

While Entergy has said it will do all it can to offer alternate positions to its staff, Skerpon says layoffs are likely.

“Some employees may be able to relocate to another plant, but not all,” said Skerpon. “It will be very difficult to stay in the area.”  

The part of upstate New York where these plants are located is rural. Despite proximity to a college town, there are few jobs to be had.

As FitzPatrick employee and Local 97 member Shawn Doyle told the New York Times, “Everybody that works here is making a good salary. There are no other jobs here. These are the best jobs.”

When Entergy CEO Leo Denault met with FitzPatrick employees last December, Local 97 member Eric Wilczynski challenged him on his salary and benefits package.

"Prove to the families that our compensation, pensions and futures are as secure as yours,'' Wilczynski said.

A Syracuse newspaper reported that Wilczynski, a chief mechanical maintenance technician who has worked at FitzPatrick for 25 years, said that Denault makes $11.8 million a year and has a golden parachute. Many Local 97 members without the option of relocating to the only other Entergy-run plant in the state would lose their pensions.

The other Entergy plant in New York, Indian Point Energy Center, is located downstate in Buchanan, New York, about 50 miles north of New York City.   

Legislating and Regulating a Rescue

Entergy claims it needs to close Fitzpatrick because of decreasing revenues and a market design that doesn’t compensate nuclear power for carbon-free emissions like it does other energy sources. For the latter, Skerpon and others are seeking a legislative fix to include nuclear plants as recipients of carbon credits along with renewables.

"We do provide a lot of incentives in solar right now and some in wind," said Senate Energy Committee Chairman Joseph Griffo, reported by WRVO, a public media outlet. "We are not doing that with nuclear and from my perspective, nuclear is a form of clean power because of the carbon footprint."

The state Senate recently included $100 million in a budget proposal that would provide immediate support to Fitzpatrick, reported Syracuse.com. Similar funding was not in the Assembly version.

Two bills were introduced in the state Assembly in January, one of which would provide a one-time $60 million tax credit to FitzPatrick. The second bill would make nuclear plants eligible for zero-carbon emission payments, funded by utility ratepayers, and comparable to the renewable energy credits earned by wind and hydro-power facilities.

Skerpon says he is looking for assurance that once FitzPatrick is given the $60 million and other credits, it would in fact remain open.

For his part, Cuomo said he will “pursue every legal and regulatory avenue in an attempt to stop Entergy’s actions and its callous disregard for their skilled and loyal workforce,” reported the New York Times.

At the governor’s request, the New York Department of Public Service has proposed a plan to require all companies that sell electricity in the state to buy power from upstate nuclear plants – at potentially above-market rates – to help assure the units' continued operation, said Platts, an energy publication. Entergy however, says it will not happen in time to save FitzPatrick.

New York’s Public Service Commission offered Entergy financial assistance to tide the company over while the state works out an energy credit, reported WSYR, a local news station. But the company said it still has not changed its decision to close the plant.

 Skerpon and others aren’t backing down.

“Entergy says it’s a done deal, but I’m not giving up yet,” Skerpon said. “We’ll keep plugging.”

A New Day for Nuclear?

Elsewhere in the country, the Wisconsin Legislature voted to repeal the state's 33-year moratorium on nuclear plant construction. Gov. Scott Walker is expected to sign it into law, reported the Nuclear Energy Institute. Among the considerations was the EPA’s requirement to reduce carbon emissions.

In California, a group of environmentalists and climate scientists are fighting to keep the Diablo Canyon plant from closing. It’s the state’s only nuclear plant and accounts for about one-tenth of the Golden State’s electricity, serving more than 3 million homes and businesses, reported Mother Jones, a progressive publication.

Mother Jones also cited a recent analysis by the International Energy Agency that found that, in order for the world to meet the global warming limit established by the recent climate agreement in Paris, nuclear's share will need to grow from around 11 percent in 2013 to 16 percent by 2030.

Prominent climate scientists including former NASA scientist James Hansen have also called for “an enlarged focus on nuclear energy,” reported the Scientific American, a national scientific publication. 

"Nuclear, especially next-generation nuclear, has tremendous potential to be part of the solution to climate change," Hansen said.

Cover photo: Indian Point nuclear plant. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons