You may have noticed construction going on in Rochester, along some city streets and at power substations in Greece, Henrietta and Perinton all tied to Rochester Gas & Electric. It’s part of $150 million upgrade to the region’s electricity transmission — and a break-away from reliance on the Ginna nuclear power plant. RG&E will continue tapping into the power generated by the nuclear power facility in Wayne County, however, along with other sources in the mix such as natural gas, hydro-electric, wind and coal. But if the nuclear plant were to close, RC&E’s more than 300,000 electricity customers wouldn’t notice.

The R.E. Ginna Nuclear Power Plant, on 426 acres along the shores of Lake Ontario, might have been shuttered in 2017 for economic reasons tied in good portion to cheaper energy from sources other than nuclear. Basically, nukes need more money than they now make in the wholesale market. But recent developments gave nuclear a leg up in New York. Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Clean Energy Standard, 50 percent of New York's electricity will come from renewable energy sources by 2030. Cash flow for producers of renewables like wind, solar and nuclear will come from a monthly fee customers see on their electricity bill, not more than $2 for the average household, according to the governor.

How people feel about nuclear power touches a nerve. Catastrophic events at plants such as Chernobyl in Ukraine, Fukushima in Japan — or the most serious U.S. incident being the 1979 partial meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa, makes even some environmentalists cringe at the word “green” attached to nuclear power.

 

A lifeline?

John Smith, supervisor for the town of Ontario in Wayne County, has lived three miles from Ginna for 30 years. He calls Ginna “a lifeline to upstate nuclear energy.” The supervisor led an effort, along with other Wayne County proponents, to keep Ginna going. He and most others on the Wayne County Board of Supervisors express confidence in the plant. Smith sees “zero issues with reliability and safety,” he said.

A resolution Smith proposed earlier this year that garnered overwhelming support from the county board went so far as to advocate or a second nuclear plant in the county, as well.

“There is cheaper energy from other sources, but it’s a trade off to maintain a clean, reliable source of energy,” said Smith, who is head of the board’s safety committee.

For Wayne County, Ginna has provided a much-needed source in revenue, according to Smith and board chairman Steve LeRoy. The plant contributes $10 million annually to the economy of Wayne County through school, town and county taxes as well as economic impact through jobs, real estate and area businesses that benefit. Smith said that for his town of Ontario alone, Ginna contributes $1 million annually in economic benefits.

With the governor’s clean energy standard goal of 50 percent reliance on renewables by 2030, Smith and fellow proponents say Ginna as a vital.

LeRoy, supervisor for the town of Sodus, said he is a big wind and solar proponent, “an environmentalist” who believes as well in nuclear. A town supervisor for 11 years, LeRoy was a full-time charter boat captain in the Adirondacks for 27 years and is a registered New York State guide. LeRoy said Ginna is helping the economy while providing clean energy and he is all for that.

 

Challenges

This month, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, an environmental advocacy group, sued New York utility regulators over big subsidies for nuclear power plants. Hudson River Sloop Clearwater claims in a lawsuit the state Public Service Commission acted improperly when it adopted the subsidies this summer as part of the plan to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. The subsidies will go toward upgrades at upstate nuclear plants as New York ramps up its use of solar, wind and other renewables. In the first two years, the ratepayer subsidy will total an estimated $965 million. The figure could grow to $7.6 billion over 12 years. A spokesman for the PSC said they would not comment since the matter is in court.

Fifty years after the U.S. launched a bold plan to invest in nuclear power, most of the promises of clean, inexpensive energy have failed to materialize. Plants often cost far more than projected and took years longer to build — driving up rates for consumers. Many plants were never completed, instead becoming a debt utility companies passed on to ratepayers.

Meanwhile, the direst fears of anti-nuclear activists also have not played out. Although there are rashes of safety incidents, the most serious U.S. incident the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, there has never been the kind of catastrophe seen at the Chernobyl plant or, more recently, at the Fukushima reactor.

But skeptics say risks are still with us. As reactors age, they are more prone to accidents caused by worn-out parts. In some cases, operating licenses are being renewed far beyond a plant’s planned shelf life, meaning expensive upgrades and extra-vigilant maintenance — things not always tended to by strapped utilities.

Of even greater concern to the nuclear watchdogs: the vast and growing piles of spent nuclear fuel. There is still no known way to store used fuel long-term that guarantees it won’t leak during the tens of thousands of years some components remain radioactive. The 76,000 metric tons of dangerous nuclear waste that already have been generated now sit on plant sites across the country. To give that number perspective, if existing radioactive fuel assemblies were stacked end-to-end and side-by-side, they would stand more than two stories high and cover a football field.

 

Deal with the devil?

Canandaigua City Council member Anita Twitchell is an environmental advocate who serves on the city’s Planning/Development and Environmental/Parks committees. She doesn’t see benefits of nuclear power outweighing risks. With the potential in solar, wind and hydro- power, she questions why we would we put our energy into nuclear.

“We are really just dealing with the devil,” she said.

The city of Canandaigua, Ontario County and many other area municipalities and businesses have tapped into solar that is projected to become more affordable over the next decade under the governor’s Clean Energy Standard and other incentives. Twitchell said solar is successful even in areas like the Finger Lakes region with its periods of little sunshine and the region already has a strong foothold in hydroelectric.

While Ginna has a better safety record than other nuclear plants — “It is not Indian Point,” she said, all it takes is one incident to affect millions of people.

Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power plant that has operated in Westchester County for more than four decades, has come under fire in recent years for safety and environmental concerns. Among those: A warming of the Hudson River and a recent case of bolts missing in one of its reactors. According to a National Graphic Report in July, the plant’s two working reactor units were operating on expired licenses, with the state of New York having denied parent company Entergy’s water permits due to suspected violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

Includes reporting by The Associated Press and GateHouse Media reporter Christine Legere

 

By the numbers: Ginna

1 Pressurized water reactor

576 Megawatts electricity generated annually

500,000 Homes powered

94.5 Percent of time plant operates

SOURCE: Exelon, R.E. Ginna

http://www.exeloncorp.com/locations/power-plants/r-e-ginna