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No Room for Nuclear in New York’s Clean Energy Future (guest opinion by Joseph J. Heath and Betty Lyons)

Joe Heath has served as general counsel to the Onondaga Nation since 1982. He was a leader in efforts to ban fracking in New York State. Prior to law school, Heath served as an officer on nuclear submarines.

Betty Lyons is President and Executive Director of the American Indian Law Alliance (AILA) and a citizen of the Onondaga Nation. AILA was founded in 1989; it is an indigenous, non-profit and non-partisan organization that works with indigenous nations, communities and organizations for sovereignty, human rights and social justice for indigenous peoples.

As New York’s energy demand and prices increase as winter approaches, the state’s Climate Action Council (CAC) is working on its final action plan for implementing the New York’s landmark climate legislation, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). The scoping plan will lay out the details of how the state will accomplish the clean energy transition and how the transition will serve environmental justice.

Justice is a cornerstone of New York’s Climate Law, which says actions must not disproportionately burden disadvantaged communities. At a recent meeting, ACC members proposed strengthening language in the framework plan to explain exactly why such burdens are unacceptable and why climate and environmental justice must include all communities in the state, including a meaningful consultation with aboriginal nations.

Continued dependence on nuclear power plants – whether “advanced” nuclear reactors or existing or untested “small modular reactors” – violates these priorities. The Onondaga Nation, the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force and the American Indian Law Alliance have concluded that nuclear energy is not viable in the fight against climate change. The ACC should come to the same conclusion.

The CAC Climate Justice Task Force has asked the CAC to draft a serious plan to phase out Oswego County’s three aging nuclear power plants (in the traditional territory of the Onondaga Nation): Nine Mile Point (NMP ) Unit 1, NMP 2 and FitzPatrick. So far, CAC has not responded to this call.

The three factories are old and obsolete. NMP unit 1 is the the oldest American reactor in service, commissioned in 1969; FitzPatrick in 1975. These two have already exceeded the 40-year lifespan they were designed for. However, their operating licenses are dangerously extended – until 2029 for the NMP 1 unit, 2034 for FitzPatrick and 2046 for the NMP 2 unit (commissioned in 1988). These factories increasingly require repairs and replacements as the components age, and because they cannot compete in an unrigged market, they depend on massive state and federal subsidies levied on taxpayers.

All three of Oswego’s plants have GE boiling water reactors, the same flawed design as Fukushima: weak containment vessels and highly radioactive spent fuel stored on an upper floor. Vulnerable pools are filled with more fuel rods than they were designed to hold. If pools leak or water circulation fails, the risk of fire and major radiation increases dramatically. Lake Ontario water levels in recent years have come within a foot of flooding these cement pools, a major problem in Fukushima. With increasing rainfall events due to climate change, the likelihood of flood-related disasters increases.

NMP and the US Department of Energy (DOE) may be working to produce clean hydrogen cells, but the fact remains that nuclear power plants are not “clean energy” and far from carbon-free. During its life cycle (uranium extraction, concentration, transport, construction, operation, dismantling), nuclear energy emits more than twice as much carbon as solar energy and six to seven times more than wind energy.

The longer Oswego’s mills operate, the greater their impacts will be. Daily plant operations kill millions of fish, cause thermal pollution, remove 13 million gallons of water from Lake Ontario a year, and release tritium (a non-filterable radioactive isotope of hydrogen) into the air and water, to be absorbed by plants and our skin, lungs and gastrointestinal tracts.

An important point in CAC’s consideration of how to do justice through the scoping plan should be that the entire nuclear lifecycle disproportionately harms Indigenous nations and peoples.

Citizens of the Seneca Nation living on the Cattaraugus “reservation” have already been impacted by the West Valley Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility south of Buffalo. Tritium and the lethal isotopes Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 contaminate soil, groundwater, and surface water, including Cattaraugus Creek, which empties into Lake Erie.

Citizens of Onondaga in territory currently recognized by the Nation are at risk of harm from recently authorized nuclear waste truck shipments on Interstate 81 South, passing over creeks south of Syracuse where citizens swim, fish and collect medicinal plants. The DOE approved shipments of highly radioactive waste through this territory against strong opposition from the Nation and in violation of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua.

The impacts of existing and proposed nuclear power plants are neither insignificant nor unacceptable. New York should not waste its resources on so-called advanced nuclear power plants or even riskier small modular reactors. They are no better than existing technology: they have the same life cycle impacts, accident risks, high costs and toxic waste. The growing dangers of the continued accumulation of spent fuel rods, without a safe storage mechanism and without a plan, are reason enough for reasonable ACC members to refuse money for new nuclear power plants.

Not only is new nuclear not a fair option, but the state should stop subsidizing Units 1 and 2 at Nine Mile Point and FitzPatrick. Nuclear energy harms the environment and public health, and violates Indigenous rights and sovereignty. Investing in any nuclear energy goes against New York’s commitment to environmental justice and climate justice.

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