Cahill on point – Indian Point, that is

For years the no-nukers have been targeting Indian Point, the nuclear power plant on the Hudson River in Westchester County. The Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine 25 years ago brought protest to a pitch. The disaster in Japan last spring has galvanized a whole new generation of anti-nukers.

In politics, timing and opportunity are everything. Now, the timing may be right.

Powerful forces, not the least Gov. Andrew Cuomo in league with Kevin Cahill, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Energy, are gathering their forces to shut down Indian Point.

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Cahill, rarely one to follow the curve, jumped out front in claiming Indian Point, in terms of regional power, is irrelevant.

Both sides raise compelling issues. Supporters, including, of course, its owners, Entergy, claim that Indian Point provides a quarter of the power used by New York City and a large portion of Westchester County. Building a new non-nuclear plant with similar generating capacity could raise rates for everyone by about 10 percent, they assert. And energy shortages would become common.

Opponents consider the nuclear reactors at Indian Point a clear and present danger, even though there have been only minor incidents during more than 40 years of operation. Key to their concerns is the practical impossibility of evacuating millions of people — to where? — on short notice. Think of the southbound lanes of the Thruway on the Monday night of a holiday weekend. Or either one of the Woodstocks.

These arguments have been hashed and rehashed for almost two generations, producing much heat and some political advantage for both sides, but very little light. The ominous domes of Indian Point loom large over the Hudson.

Cahill seeks to tip the balance against Indian Point. Wading through the overheated rhetoric — he calls proponents’ claim “as irresponsible as it is absurd” — the assemblyman asserts that Indian Point is providing something less than 5 percent of New York City’s power even though it has the capacity to provide up to 26 percent. The rest is sold on the New York power grid. Replacing that small amount of power from Indian Point would be relatively simple, suggests the assemblyman.

New York State is one of the toughest places in the country to site and build power plants of any kind. Recall the firestorm developer Michael Zinn ran into when he attempted to construct a state-of-the-art gas-fired generating plant in the Town of Ulster years ago. Zinn eventually took his project to an urban wasteland in Schenectady, where it was welcomed with open arms.

Cahill’s goal is to “make Indian Point irrelevant to our energy future.” He says a new power-plant siting law will shorten the time — by how much? — to put “modern, cleaner, appropriately sited power plants on line.”

“Modern and cleaner” is redundant. The key here is “appropriately sited,” meaning with local input. If the late Michael Zinn’s project is an example, few communities will be willing to accept construction of a power plant even half the size of Indian Point in their back yards.

The other voice less heard from may give some indication of how this issue might fare in the legislature, if in fact legislative approval proves necessary.

State Sen. George Maziarz (who he?), chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy, takes a decidedly senatorial view of all this. In a press release issued during the Indian Point outcry following the Japanese disaster, Maziarz repeated what Cahill considers base canards, adding, “It is clear [opponents] are using the disaster in Japan to support their political goals of closing Indian Point.” Maziarz, who apparently likes to keep it simple, represents a district on Lake Erie, as far away as Indian Point as one can get without leaving New York State. I wonder whether the former Erie County clerk would support construction of a nuclear power plant in ghost-town Buffalo.

Where this goes, nobody knows. Cahill in a brief phone message from Oregon last week, where he was attending an energy regulation training seminar, advised that the final decision would not be with public officials but with the operators of Indian Point. Not to accuse the assemblyman of slitherlyness, but the plant’s license expires in less than two years. The state, in conjunction with the federal government, which licenses nuclear plants, will have the last word.

For me, the last word is, if Cahill is right, and I have the utmost faith in the veracity of my assemblyman, occasional flights of rhetoric notwithstanding, this plant should have been shut down yesterday. Given New York’s precarious power situation, however, no decision on closure should be taken unless a guaranteed deal on a power-supply alternative arrangement that works is written in stone. That may prove more difficult than shutting down the plant.

 

Sexy issue

At least a dozen town, city and village clerks in our area opened up last Sunday to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and, presumably, any other couples who showed up. Such dedication is to be commended, and is in keeping with this historic event.

It wouldn’t have happened, of course, if a handful of New York State senators hadn’t switched their votes in June to make same-sex marriage the law of the land. Among them was veteran state Sen. Steve Saland, Republican of Poughkeepsie.

Saland and I go back to Poughkeepsie High School, where I, as a high-scoring shooting guard, routinely slapped Saland’s shots into the stands. By the same token, I could never touch Saland’s curveball. He was at the time Poughkeepsie’s answer to Sandy Koufax. We became family, brothers-in-law once removed. We usually don’t talk politics at family events.

Family, Saland said during an emotional address on the state Senate floor the night the same-sex bill was approved, had much to do with the moral position he was taking on the issue. In his family, and I knew and respected his parents, issues of equality and fairness were fundamental. In voting for same-sex marriage, this descendant of prominent rabbis said he was standing on long-held principles.

The speech was widely lauded as defining the issue. I believe Saland was sincere at the time he cast his vote last month, but the record also shows he voted against the same measure in 2009.

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What changed? For one thing, the tide of public opinion, especially among younger voters. Polls leading up to the crucial vote consistently showed rising approval — or declining opposition — for an idea whose time had come. Few things, they say, are more compelling.

As compelling was the senate Republican majority’s desperate need to hold on to its two-vote majority. Republicans lost that majority in 2008 (regained in 2010), in part, perhaps, because of their opposition to same-sex marriage. The gay community is a potent force in politics, with many supporters.

Then there was the sordid business of New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg donating $10,200 (the maximum allowed) to swing senators (including Saland) just prior to the vote. Maybe I’m being parochial here, but I don’t believe Steve Saland was for sale. But he should not have accepted the money.

Saland, with a distinguished record — chairman of the Senate Committee on Education for many years — and a work ethic to weary a Clydesdale, has been automatic in his Dutchess-Columbia district for more than 20 years. Nonetheless, he has always been a man of the house. He ran for re-election at 67 last year, I’m reliably advised, only to help Republicans regain the state Senate. As such, an early 2012 retirement announcement would surprise no one.

Saland’s legacy, like all legacies, will be mixed, but I think mostly positive. Some may question, as I have, his principles on gay marriage, but in the end, he did the right thing. As legacies go, that’s not a bad way to go out.

And to all those couples who couldn’t wait to get to the clerk’s office, many happy returns.