Chain Reaction

Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

In the final year in which both nuclear reactors were operational, the Indian Point Energy Center (IPEC) generated 16.7 terawatt hours of reliable baseload power from its 2.1GW of combined capacity—enough to meet roughly 25% of New York City’s total demand. By mid-2020, only one of those reactors was still running, but it managed to do so for the entire calendar year without interruption, turning in a perfect capacity factor of 100%. Not bad for a facility that sits on just 240 acres of land, the equivalent of a single square kilometer. IPEC permanently ceased operation on April 30, 2021, dealing a devasting blow to pro-nuclear activists around the country after their decade-long fight to stave off a counter-productive closure ended in bitter failure.

Punching above its weight | Holtec

For the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), the loss of IPEC made keeping the lights on an acute challenge. As a stop-gap measure, NYISO authorized the construction of new natural gas power plants, although the lack of pipeline capacity to connect the state to the prolific Marcellus and Utica shales made this a suboptimal solution at best. It also ran afoul of the state’s carbon emissions goals. A recent article from The Guardian provided the sordid results:

“When New York’s deteriorating and unloved Indian Point nuclear plant finally shuttered in 2021, its demise was met with delight from environmentalists who had long demanded it be scrapped.

But there has been a sting in the tail – since the closure, New York’s greenhouse gas emissions have gone up….

Since the plant’s closure, it has been gas, rather then [sic] clean energy such as solar and wind, that has filled the void, leaving New York City in the embarrassing situation of seeing its planet-heating emissions jump in recent years to the point its power grid is now dirtier than Texas’s, as well as the US average.”

As the IPEC was being constructed in the early 1970s, New York’s French-speaking neighbor to the north was embarking on one of the most ambitious, controversial, and environmentally disruptive energy projects in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Hydro-Québec—the government-owned utility that manages the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity across the Province of Québec—set about damming much of La Grande Rivière watershed in the name of electricity production. We turn to The Canadian Encyclopedia for the staggering details:

“The [James Bay] project flooded 11,500 km2 of wilderness land that was home to the James Bay Cree and Inuit. The village of Fort George (population 2,373), at the mouth of La Grande Rivière, was uprooted and relocated upstream. It is now called Chisasibi. The village of Eastmain now lies in a saltwater estuary, as Rivière Eastmain was reduced to a trickle. The flooding also created mercury contamination in fish, as mercury was released from rotting vegetation in the reservoirs, and contributed to the deaths of an estimated 10,000 caribou. Vast areas of wilderness were inundated (flooded) and forests were incinerated (burned) in an attempt to clear debris.

Distinctly more than 240 acres | Hydro-Québec

According to the company, “Hydro-Québec’s generating fleet comprises 61 hydroelectric generating stations and 24 thermal plants with a total installed capacity of 37.2 GW. Its hydropower facilities also include 28 large reservoirs with a combined storage capacity of over 176 TWh, as well as 681 dams and 91 control structures.” The James Bay Project alone accounts for 15.2 GW of capacity, or roughly the equivalent of 7+ Indian Point nuclear power plants (less when one accounts for capacity factor differences among the technologies), while chewing through thousands of square kilometers of once pristine land in the process.

In the ultimate perversion of logic, New York is now turning to Québec to help close the gaping hole IPEC’s closure created, adding to its already extensive reliance on imported electricity from the province. It’s a tale of irony, expense, risk, and environmental hypocrisy of the highest order. Let’s explore what’s really going on.

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