Last week, Entergy, the company that runs both the Indian Point and FitzPatrick nuclear power plants in New York, decided to close FitzPatrick while continuing its push to keep Indian Point open. As James Conca observed in Forbes on Tuesday, the reason the plant is closing is mostly economic. Even though FitzPatrick does not emit carbon, it does not benefit from utility rate preferences for renewable energy. The price of natural gas is so low that nuclear power can’t compete, and “the FitzPatrick plant carries a high cost structure because it is a single unit, like the other plants recently closed and those at risk of closing. Most nuclear plants come in twos or threes, making for positive economies of scale.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and most of the elected officials in Oswego County, home of the plant, want it to stay open mainly due to its positive impact on the local economy. But while the governor is eager to keep FitzPatrick open, he is also trying to shut down Indian Point. It brings to mind his father Mario’s opposition to the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant on Long Island. While on the surface the Governors Cuomo might seem inconsistent on nuclear power, in reality they both maintained consistent principles. The issue they worried about at both Indian Point and Shoreham was evacuation in the event of an emergency. As Mario Cuomo learned, if an accident occurred at Shoreham, there would be no way to evacuate Long Island. Similarly, Indian Point is just too close to New York City and there are simply too many people there to safely evacuate if Indian Point faced a “Fukushima-like” loss-of-coolant accident. FitzPatrick is different. While an accident would devastate upstate land and waterways, the people living near the plant could be evacuated with enough warning.

My own view of nuclear is a bit more cautious than the governor’s. While the likelihood of an accident is low, the impact of an accident would be high. Any technology managed by humans – in other words, all technology – should assume that at some point Murphy’s Law will come into play: If something bad can happen, it will happen. That is what took place in Japan – mismanagement, bad governance and sloppy safety protocols led to a devastating accident. Given the risk, why take the chance? It brings to mind the words of the late, great environmentalist Barry Commoner: “Nuclear power: It’s a hell of a complicated way to boil water.”

I understand the advantages of nuclear power, especially its ability to generate power without greenhouse gases, but the toxicity of nuclear fuel and waste makes nuclear technology too risky to rely on. The decommissioning of America’s civilian nuclear power plants would take many years, and some will continue to push to construct new plants and relicense old ones. In the end, I think that economic forces will work against nuclear power in the United States. Nuclear power is very capital intensive, and regulatory requirements for multiple safety systems increase costs. The need for coolant means that nuclear plants are located near water, and the growing competition for waterfront sites for residential and commercial development is driving up the price of land.

As New York state’s substantial investment in a huge solar cell factory near Buffalo indicates, the future of our energy system will not be dominated by large, centralized energy plants, but by decentralized networks of renewable energy tied together by microgrids and smart grid technology. The world economy is increasingly composed of large networks of highly specialized forms of production. A modern automobile is made up of thousands of components made by hundreds of companies in scores of nations; the car is designed and assembled by one company but is manufactured by many. Only energy retains the centralized, vertically integrated form common to the 20th century.

But that is going to change in the 21st century. Energy production will be decentralized and distributed, more efficient, and less vulnerable to breakdown. It is clear that Cuomo understands this. But he and all of us are reacting to the pain and agony of the loss of 615 jobs at the FitzPatrick plant. These highly trained and well-paid workers are the greatest losers in this plant closing, and history tells us that little will be done to help them find new employment.

Rather than trying to keep FitzPatrick open, the state could attract a high-tech business to replace it. Perhaps Entergy would consider building its renewable energy business and New York state could provide some subsidies to help make it happen. If they’re not interested, let’s look somewhere else. We’d be better off investing in the future than reviving the past.

 

Steven Cohen is the executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a professor in the practice of public affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.