At Indian Point, a Small Leak Turns Into a Big Political Battle Over Nuclear Energy

A flower sprouts from the ground at the premises of the home of Mikio Watanabe at Yamakiya district in Kawamata town, Fukushima prefecture
A flower sprouts from the ground at the premises of the home of Mikio Watanabe at Yamakiya district in Kawamata town, Fukushima prefecture June 23, 2014. In July 2011, nearly four months after the massive earthquake and tsunami that triggered a series of catastrophic failures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, Hamako Watanabe returned to her still-radioactive hilltop home, doused herself in kerosene and set herself on fire. She left no suicide note, but her husband Mikio, who discovered her charred body, says plant operator Tokyo Electric is directly responsible. A district court in Fukushima is expected to rule in late August on Watanabe's lawsuit, which Tokyo Electric (Tepco) is contesting. Picture taken June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Issei Kato (JAPAN - Tags: DISASTER POLITICS ENERGY) - RTR3XWES
Photograph by Issei Kato — Reuters

There is a big standoff in the Empire State over nuclear energy.

The Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan, N.Y., a town of 2,260 people located an hour’s drive of New York City, leaked “alarming levels” of radioactive contaminant into nearby groundwater, according to a new statement from New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Of three monitoring wells that reported elevated levels, “one well’s radioactivity increasing nearly 65,000%,” though the contamination remains isolated and poses no hazard to nearby residents, he says.

The facility’s operator, Entergy (ETR), says the elevated tritium concentrations found in groundwater near the plant were likely from a temporary system established and dismantled in January 2016. In other words, there’s no ongoing leak. Meanwhile the concentrations, “far below federal reporting requirements,” have “no health or safety consequences,” it says.

Cuomo’s hard stance is nothing new. As of November of last year, the governor’s office actively opposed the continuing operation of Indian Point, and Cuomo earlier this month called for a full investigation of the facility by state environment and health officials.

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Critics points out that the latest flareup adds to a mounting list of recent problems at Indian Point. Proponents insist that such issues are not unusual with consideration to peer facilities. Leaks of radioactive material have been found at as many as 75% of U.S. nuclear plants, though none involved concentrations that posed a health threat.

The risk of a disaster at any one nuclear plant is small, though residents who live near them have been wary in the wake of high-profile incidents at Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania (1979), Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986), and Fukushima Daiichi in Japan (2011).

Stanford researchers estimate that the 2011 Fukushima disaster may directly cause about 300 deaths worldwide, though estimates of economic losses range from $250 billion to $500 billion, stemming largely from the removal of 159,128 people from a zone the size of Connecticut—land that will be uninhabitable for centuries.

No deaths have been attributed to the commercial operation of U.S. nuclear power plants in more than 50 years. Still, some residents are understandably wary: Indian Point sits due north of the largest metropolitan area in the U.S., with real estate prices to match. During the Fukushima meltdown, the Japanese government established a 20 kilometer (12 mile) evacuation zone around the reactor—but the U.S. embassy recommended that Americans leave areas within 50 miles. Any meltdown at Indian Point, however unlikely, could lead to the evacuation of New York City.

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Closing Indian Point would put New York and the United States in line with a sharp global move away from nuclear power following 2011’s meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daichi reactor. Japan shut down all of its nuclear plants after the disaster, and only began tentatively restarting a handful in 2015.

Countries including France and Germany have moved to similar phase-outs, with Germany in 2011 pledging to phase out all nuclear power by 2022. Austria and Spain have stopped all construction on new nuclear plants. The U.S. had not constructed a new nuclear power plant in nearly 20 years when, in October of 2015, a plant in Tennessee was given the go-ahead.

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The decision to abandon nuclear energy isn’t as easy as it appears. Nuclear energy still makes up nearly 20% of the total U.S. energy supply. There are a handful of startups eying the future of nuclear technology and aiming towards smaller, safer reactors, but such innovations have yet to make a major dent on the U.S. energy economy. And though tenewable energy sources such as wind and solar have experienced double-digit annual growth, they have not yet proven enough to offset domestic reliance on nuclear energy.

Editor’s Note, March 3, 2016: The original version of this article did not meet Fortune’s editorial standards. The copy, including the headline, has been revised to more accurately reflect the situation at hand.

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