FORTUNE 03/08/16
By Michael Shank

It’s time to rethink what constitutes “clean energy”

Nuclear energy is not the answer to America’s necessary clean energy transition. It’s an expensive, dirty, and dangerous fuel, which is why seven electrical engineers at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) noted, last week, significant safety concerns with all but one of the nation’s 100 nuclear power plants. Signaling the NRC engineers’ concerns, last month one of America’s oldest nuclear power plants leaked radioactive tritium into its groundwater below – at radioactivity levels 65,000% higher than normal.

It’s time to rethink what constitutes “clean energy,” as nuclear power is often grouped into the clean energy category since its greenhouse gas emissions are less than heavier emitting oil, coal, and gas. On the heels of the international climate talks in Paris, as the United States struggles to meet its carbon-related commitments in light of the Supreme Court’s stay of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, the ramp up of “clean energy” solutions is now paramount.

But just what defines “clean” is the question, especially when radioactive leaks abound? The plant responsible for the latest radioactive leak – Indian Point Energy Center, owned by Entergy, just 25 miles north of New York City – is just one of the many aging nuclear power plants in America that is getting narratively re-positioned as clean energy. This is happening along with hydropower and even natural gas – diluting, in the public’s mind at least, what clean energy really is (a term that should be reserved primarily for renewable energy).

In fact, Indian Point is anything but clean, which is why it has moved quickly to the front of New York State’s political burner lately as the company’s operating licenses, which expired a while ago, are getting a strong rebuke from New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, who doesn’t want a Fukushima-style nuclear disaster happening to New Yorkers.

There would be nothing remotely clean about that, which is why the New York governor ordered a probe into the multiple, unexpected and forced shutdowns at the plant. And while the governor is not keen to close all of New York’s nuclear power plants, as he transitions the state off carbon-emitting fossil fuels, he has made it abundantly clear that he wants this particular nuclear plant shut down due to safety concerns.

Everyone should take note. While “terrorism” dominates the presidential campaign debates, given front runner Donald Trump’s hometown familiarity with one of America’s most frequent terror targets (i.e. New York City), it’s surprising that they don’t do more, rhetorically at least, to protect the safety of America’s financial capital. To be fair, however, if you’d ask New Yorkers about potential threats to Manhattan, they too may not know the security risk that looms miles up the Hudson River.

But even if they did, the knowledge would be only marginally useful as the roads wouldn’t be able to handle the escaping throngs and the iodine tablets (which is what affected residents are encouraged to take) wouldn’t help. And with the Nuclear Threat Initiative saying in January that we’re only making slow progress on preventing nuclear terrorism, with cyber attacks increasing, we must take these warnings seriously, especially in our backyard.

Add to the precariousness of the security situation a new Spectra gas pipeline, approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will cross Entergy property in proximity to the plant (storing 1500 tons of radioactive waste) – a move members of Congress are calling into question given recent successful cyber attacks on local New York infrastructure. And just last week, Governor Cuomo rightfully called for a halt to the construction of the pipeline citing the dangers of its proximity to Indian Point.

And yet, despite all of that, Indian Point Energy Center continues to operate. The permits for the two plants were set to expire in 2013 and 2015 but were extended by the NRC, an agency known for its close ties to the nuclear power industry, which recently relaxed Indian Point’s testing requirements. This could all be easily avoided. We could keep debating the serious security concerns, as they will continue to compromise the safety of millions of Americans in the New York City area even if the licenses are renewed. Or we could nip this in the bud now, once and for all, and transition the region to something more sustainable and safe. It’s totally doable. And it’d be legitimately clean.

Based on a recent Synapse Energy Economics study, we know that we ‎can replace Indian Point Energy Center by expanding energy from renewables and efficiency and that the costs of doing so would be minimal. So let’s do this. We’ve got sufficient capacity to support a reliable electric system without Indian Point, with new, less dangerous and more renewable energy sources that also come with clear health benefits. And if Governor Cuomo is going to reach his 50% renewable energy goal by 2030, this is a great place to start.

This is the clean energy future. By exploiting large amounts of untapped energy efficiencies, maximizing surpluses and reserves, expanding renewables and improving generation and transmission, we know we can retire the nuclear plant hovering above Manhattan on the Hudson River. And we should do everything in our power to transition the bright minds at Indian Point into the clean renewable energy sector in New York, which is growing daily. Let’s keep them employed – and then some. But most importantly, let’s keep this country safe.

Michael Shank, PhD is an adjunct assistant professor of sustainable development at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs graduate program.