The Greens get snared — and played — in a very fishy political deal
There was a brief moment when I could casually drop at Manhattan cocktail parties that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was my lawyer. Which wasn’t exactly true, of course, but close enough for cocktail chatter. My neighborhood association in the Hudson River village where I had a house had taken the planning board to court; we wanted to stop a small-time polluter from expanding his riverside business and perhaps becoming a bigger-time polluter. The environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper joined our case as a “friend,” as did the NAACP. Riverkeeper’s lawyer at the time was Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Years on, I see from a headline that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is a “prominent anti-vaccine advocate.” In 2021, his Instagram account was permanently deleted “for repeatedly sharing debunked claims” about Covid-19 vaccines. Two years ago, Bobby’s views led to Kennedy family drama breaking out in the Op-Ed pages: RFK Jr’s niece, Dr. Kerry Kennedy Meltzer, an internal medicine resident physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, took to the pages of the New York Times to write: “I love my uncle. But when it comes to vaccines, he is wrong.” Three other Kennedys wrote in Politico:
We love Bobby. He is one of the great champions of the environment. His work to clean up the Hudson River and his tireless advocacy against multinational organizations who have polluted our waterways and endangered families has positively affected the lives of countless Americans. We stand behind him in his ongoing fight to protect our environment. However, on vaccines he is wrong.
I’m not much interested in Kennedy’s views on vaccines. I’m interested in his story as a cautionary lesson about what happens when well-intentioned people get something very wrong. Bobby’s passion and idealism have, apparently, run off the rails.
We all admire the tenacious fighter. But when does a stubborn refusal to change one’s mind cross the line and morph into something more sinister? Call it “reason resistance.” It was — I had to look it up — February 1998 when Andrew Wakefield, the British gastroenterologist, published his now-infamous letter in The Lancet saying he had observed 8 children whose first symptoms of autism appeared within a month of receiving an MMR vaccine.
Wakefield’s observation — and that’s all it was — rightfully scared at lot of people, especially parents, at the time. But in the decades that followed, study after study failed to find an association between the MMR vaccine and autism.
Reasonable people moved on. But not Bobby. There is, and I hate to say it, a trapped-in-amber aspect to the activism of his generation (RFK Jr. is 67). The old fights were the good fights. All that matters now is that they still can be won — after all these years!
Even if the world has moved on, and the earth shows they were the wrong fights to pick in the first place.
My tangential association with RFK Jr. came to mind last month, when I listened to an interview with Theresa Knickerbocker, Mayor of Buchanan, New York. She was talking about the closing of the Indian Point nuclear plant in her town. Buchanan is just upriver from my old house. I kept a boat on the Hudson, and often sailed past the plant.
In the current “climate emergency” — to follow the Guardian’s style guide — closing Indian Point seemed crazy to me. When it closed, Indian Point was producing more carbon-free electricity than all the wind turbines and solar panels in New York state combined. It produced 25% of the electricity used in New York City and Westchester County.
How does such a thing happen? Spoiler alert: I’d been out of the state too long. I’d forgotten about New York politics.
In her interview, Mayor Knickerbocker started out talking, predictably, about what the loss of jobs and tax revenue will do to her village and school district. Nuclear plant closings have been devastating to small towns. Entergy, the company that owned the plant, was a model corporate citizen according to Knickerbocker, supporting local charities, the schools, the library, and hospital.
The three men in a room
But then Knickerbocker said something that made me sit up and take notice. “We call it the three men in the room,” she explained. “Three people made the decision to close Indian Point.” She named them: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo; Entergy; and Riverkeeper.
I did a double-take. Riverkeeper? The same Riverkeeper that started out as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association?
Questions came fast. What were the fishermen doing in the room?
And — oh, yes — how was it New York’s energy future was being decided by three guys in a room? Shouldn’t there at least be like a commission, or a vote, or something?
I was never much into fish, so I never joined Riverkeeper. I did give them money. I appreciated what they were doing to clean up the river. The Hudson — technically a tidal estuary lower down, a river farther north — had been a dumping ground for heavy industry for a century. The Riverkeeper (an actual person gets the title) was an appealing character in a DC Comics–kind of way, an eco-vigilante bringing corporate polluters to justice. Like the thief-takers of Victorian England, Riverkeeper — the organization — got to keep part of the proceeds if a polluter was fined or settled.
But I was still mystified. A perfectly good nuclear power plant was being closed after 60 years because of — fish?
I was more confounded because I knew some Hudson River history. The “fish issue” had been settled 40 years ago, or so I thought. Consolidated Edison started generating electricity at Indian Point on September 16, 1962. That year, it proposed building a “pumped hydro” station at Storm King Mountain, 40 miles north of New York City. Pumped hydro works by using off-peak electricity to pump water to an elevated reservoir; it is later allowed to fall through ordinary hydro-turbines when electricity is needed. In the back-to-the-future file, we much note that pumped hydro is once again fashionable as a concept for utility-scale electricity storage, being a sensible low-tech alternative to massive battery packs.
A group calling itself Scenic Hudson sued to block construction at Storm King.
Scenic Hudson’s media campaign was slick, as one would expect in the ecosystem that spawned Mad Men.
Scenic Hudson — the law case — earned a big fat footnote in textbooks as the first in which an environmental group won the right to sue on aesthetic and recreational grounds.
But the Scenic Hudson media campaign set another, and more disturbing, precedent for environmental groups. It was exaggerated and crafted to be very, very scary. An aqueduct from the Catskills brings New York City its drinking water. It runs nowhere near Storm King. But somehow, ConEd’s project was going to poison the water supply.
But it was the fish that gave Scenic Hudson its big media win. In 1965,
Sports Illustrated writer Robert Boyle penned a passionate angler’s exposé. His favorite striped bass were being sucking into the cooling water intake of the Indian Point 1 reactor. Boyle’s fish story appeared a decade before its time, but had all the elements needed for an Erin Brockovich movie. ConEd, the guilty utility, had buried the evidence. Intrepid reporter Boyle combed a local landfill and dug it up.
Despite its malodorous reputation, the Hudson teems with fish, and the annual “fish census” results show they never really went away. Hudson fish are among the most-counted and best-studied in the world. Two years ago, researchers were delighted to count 450 Atlantic sturgeon — the ugly, dinosaur-like glamor fish of the river — up near Hyde Park, Franklin Roosevelt’s former home, 70 miles north of New York City.
Most of the well-publicized fish kills on the river are actually the result of hypoxia — insufficient oxygen in the water — caused by summer algae blooms fueled by excess fertilizer and sewage runoff. One die-off happens annually: millions of Atlantic menhaden swim up the river to spawn and, after they are done, huddle together and literally suffocate each other.
Old-fashioned chemical dumping is an more intractable problem of the river — if not for the fish, for anyone thinking about eating them.
Between 1947 and 1977, General Electric famously dumped polychlorinated biphenyls in the river at its capacitor manufacturing plants at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward. The PCBs are in the river sediment and have proven extraordinarily difficult to remove. Dredging the bottom swirls everything around and only makes it worse.
So bottom-feeders are out. As for the others, anglers need reference the “Fish Advisories” put out by New York Department of Health. Some species need to have fat trimmed; the Department of provides helpful diagrams of knife techniques for home cooks. The American eel, Anguilla rostrata, is reputed to be excellent eating, but for a time was subject of a jurisdictional dispute while regulators pondered over whether it was a fish or a snake.
But I’ll give Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. the last word on the state of the river. “The Hudson today,” he said in 2014, “is the richest waterway in the North Atlantic. It produces more pounds of fish per acre, more biomass per gallon, than any other waterway in the Atlantic Ocean north of the equator.”
The Storm King case went on for 17 years. By the end, ConEd was worn out. The utility had undergone a near-death experience during the energy crisis of the 1970s, and wanted to move on. In the settlement ConEd abandoned its plan to build pumped hydro at Storm King. It also agreed to install screens on the cooling water intakes at Indian Point. It even agreed to close the plant on days when tiny fish larvae are numerous in the river, an average of 42 days a year.
No. This time the fish got to the Supreme Court.
Fish larvae are a lawyer’s dream issue. Fish eggs hatch in the zillions. Ninety-nine percent of them don’t make it very long in nature anyway. But their human champion is not wrong, technically, to point out that “millions” of fish larvae are having their brief lives cut short by cooling intakes.
Multiply by the number of industrial plants that use river or lake water for cooling, and a skillful lawyer can — and did — make a federal case of it. After decades of hearing about the legal distinction between “impinge” —large fish hitting the intake grate — and “entrain” — plankton, fish eggs, and fish larvae getting sucked into it — the Court punted the issue back to the EPA, saying
that power plants should be required to use the “best technology available” to protect the fish. The current screens at Indian Point are clever mechanical contraptions called Ristroph screens. These “catch” the fish in a mesh and toss them (gently) back in the river. There are rules that govern the speed of the water, so “impingement” is not fatal. The temperature of the warm-er water leaving the plant (the Hudson is very cold) is also regulated.
Yet in the era of permanently fake news, the dead fish resurface every few years as a “fact” no one bothers to check. In 2014, the Guardian stated in passing that Indian Point was “killing millions of fish a year.” The headline was “Sizewell C nuclear plant could kill 500m fish, campaigners say.” Those who got to the end of the story learned that the claim was judged bunkum by the UK’s well-respected Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science. But who reads to the end of a story?
In 2010, Andrew Cuomo was elected governor of New York. Andrew’s father, Mario Cuomo, served as governor of New York for three terms.
In the 1989, Mario Cuomo single-handedly stopped a completed nuclear power plant at Shoreham, Long Island from going into operation.
We might pause to ask how one person, even a governor, can force a private company (LILCO, the Long Island Lighting Company) to write off a $6 billion investment. Cuomo had one spanner available, which he artfully jammed in the works. On the long list of boxes that had to be ticked before the plant could open, an evacuation plan had to be on file. Normally such plans are pro forma exercises in bureaucracy. But they do require sign-off by every police chief, fireman, and commissioner in the county. “You need somebody to cooperate all those guys,” to quote the line from The Great McGinty. Mario Cuomo chose not to. Long Island residents, whose electric rates are among the highest in the country, still pay for his decision. They will for another 5 or 10 years, until the bonds are paid off.
But when Andrew Cuomo took office in 2011, it was a new day for energy projects in New York state. There was the “Buffalo Billion” — a smorgasbord of state grants and tax breaks for economic development in that city. One project was a $750 million SolarCity solar panel factory.
Lobbyists have a shark-like ability to smell money in the water from miles away. They descended on Albany in shoals. The projects they were fronting might be new, but the inner mechanics of New York politics hadn’t changed since Boss Tweed days. State largesse was available, but it was pay-to-play. The lobbyists got their checkbooks out.
At this point, I’m going to stop referring to Riverkeeper and the National Resources Defense Council (which has roots in Scenic Hudson) as “environmental groups.” They had become part of the Renewables Lobby.
Money and politics make for strange bedfellows. Renewables and the tax credits that subsidize them have been a wonderful thing for natural gas plants. Since wind turbines don’t generate power all the time, you need to build a natural gas plant nearby to pick up the slack.
One important lobbyist was Todd R. Howe, who had worked for Mario Cuomo in 1991. (His job title for that year is normally given as “fixer.”) Howe had a client, Competitive Power Ventures (CPV), which was angling to build a natural gas-fired power plant in downstate New York. Howe was an important lobbyist because he was best buddies with Joseph Percoco, who now was a number two to Andrew Cuomo. Andrew Cuomo once described Percoco as a “brother,” Mario Cuomo’s “third son.”
According to Percoco’s 2016 indictment, the dilemma facing lobbyist Howe was: How big a bribe CPV should pay Percoco?
There was a big unknown variable — let’s call it x — in the bribe calculation. The future value of CPV’s downstate electricity, and hence the size of the bribe, depended on how much competing electricity was coming out of Indian Point.
If Indian Point were to go away…
Over the next years, for whatever reasons, closing Indian Point became a Cuomo administration “thing.” Cuomo, the lawyer, was building a case. Cuomo, the politician, could depend on the Renewables Lobby to work the media.
While a lot was changing — a long list of high-profile environmentalists, such as James Hansen, James Lovelock and Stewart Brand, had “come out” for nuclear power as a way to deal with the climate crisis — Riverkeeper observed the old-time environmental religion. And it was relentlessly anti–Indian Point.
A powerful governor can make life miserable for anyone doing business in a state. In 2014, the dead fish surfaced again. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation floated an opinion that Indian Point should close 92 days a year, not just 42, to better protect the fish larvae. This would have shut down Indian Point in August, when air conditioners in New York are running full blast, and the plan quietly tanked.
In 2016, Cuomo seized on the rusty bolts. An inspection at Indian Point 2 (an “enhanced” inspection, specially required for older plants) found 2-inch stainless steel bolts that needed to be replaced. They were, but not without lawyer Cuomo getting in a dig: “This troubling news further validates the State’s ongoing investigation into the operations of this aging power plant and our position that it should not be relicensed.”
Age for infrastructure, especially that getting regular repair, is a tricky thing. Boeing 747s are retired after 27 years of service. If you own an old house or an old car, you might get a expert to take a look at it. Cuomo, of course, wasn’t an expert, nor was the state of New York really interested in the condition or safety of Indian Point. It wasn’t in the state’s ballpark, anyway. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has the jurisdiction — and experts — to decide those issues. Before Cuomo began his campaign, there appeared to be little question that the NRC would renew the licenses of both Indian Point reactors, 2 and 3, for at least 20 more years.
Cuomo’s animosity towards “aging nuclear plants,” oddly, extended only to one — Indian Point. In 2016, the New York Public Services Commission (PSC), whose members Cuomo appoints, approved a $500 million rate surcharge on all New York electricity customers, with subsidies —“Zero Emission Credits” — going to three upstate nuclear plants, to keep them from closing. The state’s 2016 explanation was that Indian Point didn’t need “Zero Emission Credits” because it was profitable. Or did Exelon — which owns the three plants getting subsidies — play more nice in Albany, while Entergy, which owned Indian Point, did not?
Dead fish larvae and rusty bolts were not quite good enough reasons to justify closing Indian Point. Something more was needed that would scare the public into letting go of 25% of its electricity. The scary stuff didn’t have to be exactly true. It just needed just a soupçon of truthiness.
Here, I think, is a good time to re-ask the Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. question. Was Riverkeeper running off the rails?
Radiation is a scary subject for a media campaign. Radiation involves numbers and strange units. The public certainly doesn’t understand it. In binary thinking, something is either radioactive or it’s not. If it is, it’s scary. People don’t want to hear about the level of radon in their basement. They don’t want to think about “levels” at all.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires all things radiation be reported, so the NCR’s website is a goldmine for aspiring writers who want to find stuff that can be made scary. (Fair warning: Mining the site takes patience. Because the NRC makes nuclear plants report so much, there is a lot to wade through. The last write-up of Indian Point in December 2020 was for “Failure to Establish Adequate Written Instructions for Emergency Diesel Generator Maintenance,” not exactly the premise for a page-turner.)
But search around any nuclear plant long enough and a prospector is likely to find tritium: pure gold on the scary scale.
Tritium is the radioactive isotope of hydrogen. It is produced in large amounts in the atmosphere by cosmic rays. Being hydrogen, it combines readily with oxygen to form water, and falls out of the atmosphere in rain.
Tritium is so very weakly radioactive — the rays do not penetrate the outer skin — that it’s potential for harm is only by ingestion. It’s still less radioactive than a banana. A human would need to drink gallons of highly tritiated water daily, over a long time, to expose his or her internal organs to the level of radioactivity they get from an X-ray or CT scan.
Still, tritium is a byproduct of running reactors. Reactors are basically lots and lots of plumbing. Thus, the groundwater adjacent to them is monitored for unusual increases in tritium (remember, there’s no tritium-free water) to flag possible leaks. The instruments are very sensitive. The amounts of water can be very small. And no one drinks the water from these wells. New Yorkers won’t even drink from the Hudson. “What? You crazy?”
Nature provides an obvious solution for dealing with tritiated water — dilute it to insignificance in a lot more water. Even the ultra radiation-phobic Japanese have come around to this thinking: in April 2021, after a decade of dithering, they announced that they would slowly release the Fukushima clean-up water into the ocean, despite it being tritiated.
Indian Point from time to time recorded short-term spikes in the level of tritium in its groundwater monitoring wells. In every instance the water was tracked back to its source and the leak fixed. In one instance, it was a crack in a concrete wall. The total amount leaked was less than one cup.
None of which stopped Cuomo from scoring a point about “alarming levels of radioactivity” at Indian Point: “New York investigates radioactive leak in groundwater near city,” was the headline. Poison in the water: the greatest hits of the 60s and 70s just keep playing.
It didn’t take long for the “bomb blast” map to appear:
Cuomo would repeatedly complain how difficult it would be to evacuate the entire New York metropolitan area.
The complex technologies on which the modern world depends are easy to bedevil with Hollywood screenwriter reasoning. The screenwriter needs people to willingly “suspend disbelief,” to buy into a premise, no matter how strange. If the screenwriter comes up with an idea involving something complicated, such as gene editing, nuclear engineering, nanotechnology, an engineer is called and asked, “Is it possible?” The engineer, being an engineer, stammers and blurts: “Well, I suppose anything is possible….”
At which point the argument is over. Binary thinking does not want to hear that the odds of an earthquake in New York — or of a reactor transmuting into into a fission bomb — are less than one in a million, or whatever. If it’s not impossible, it is, ergo, possible.
A governor seriously worried about evacuation — not that Cuomo was — would do well to study the lessons of Fukushima, which to summarize are (a) the evacuation wasn’t necessary; and (b) the evacuation itself killed a lot of people. Radiation killed one worker who was trying to save the plant. The death toll stands at 2,202 for the Fukushima evacuation. In March 2021, the UN scientific committee on the effects of atomic radiation (Unscear), reported “no adverse health effects among Fukushima residents have been documented that could be directly attributed to radiation exposure from the accident.” Anti-nuclear groups habitually forget to mention the 15,000 victims of the tsunami.
Outside the world of fantasy, the proximity of Indian Point to Manhattan was actually an excellent reason to keep it open. The city, after all, is where the electricity is needed. It’s why ConEd put the plant there in the first place.
New York’s power grid suffers from terrible bifurcation: it’s actually two grids, an upstate and a downstate. Upstate, with hydropower from the Robert Moses dam on the Niagara, 88% of electricity already comes from zero-carbon sources. But fossil fuels generate more than two-thirds of the electricity lighting Manhattan skyscrapers, Brooklyn brownstones and other downstate customers. With Indian Point closed, that two-thirds figure is likely closer to 100%.
The Renewables Lobby has assured New Yorkers this will change, as long as they get something called Offshore Wind Renewable Energy Certificates (ORECs), which are above-market subsidies to ensure their projects are economically viable. But no construction has started, and there is, in keeping with our theme, “ongoing opposition to the projects from fishermen.”
An ambitious, privately funded plan called the Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE) proposes putting a 330-mile transmission line from the U.S.–Canada border to New York City in the Hudson riverbed. But it too, faces opposition. Not a spadeful of river sediment has yet been turned.
In Buchanan, the closing of Indian Point was mourned as a death. That was April 30.
On May 16, Biden’s “climate envoy” John Kerry told BBC interviewer Andrew Marr that 50% of the carbon reductions needed to get to net zero will come from “technologies that have not yet been invented.”
Greta Thunberg made fun of this:
At Indian Point, it was magical thinking, a phantasmagorical compulsion to slay the old dragons, that led to a perfectly good piece of existing — not future — net-zero technology being tossed on the scrapheap.
Seemingly well-intentioned people can get get things very wrong. When they do, true friends are obligated to speak up rather than play along with their fantasies. The nuclear fear campaign will be back, appearing next in Illinois, then moving on to Diablo Canyon in California. This time, sensible people must step up and oppose it.
You can follow my writing on Twitter @Will_Bates_sci