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Lawmakers grill Cuomo officials on nuclear power plant bailout

David Sommerstein
NCPR file photo

Assembly Democrats grilled Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s energy officials for more than four hours Monday about a plan executed by the Public Service Commission and a major energy company that will keep three upstate nuclear power plants alive for the next 12 years.

Utility ratepayers, mostly from downstate, will pay for the deal through a surcharge on their bills.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright, chairman of the Environmental Committee, said he’s “very disappointed” in what he said was an opaque process hastily decided last summer that ratepayers ultimately will have to finance.

Residential customers’ costs will average about $2 a month, a charge that critics have called “the Cuomo tax.”

“This is a huge imposition upon the ratepayers of the state,” Englebright said.

He scolded Cuomo administration officials testifying at the hearing for not being better prepared to make the far-reaching decision. “Instead of having this sort of effect of this being like a bug coming up on the windshield,” Englebright said, “and you being surprised when it hit.”

The hearing will likely not result in any changes to keeping the nuclear power plants open. The state already has signed contracts with the energy company Exelon and handed over the plants’ operating licenses on April 1.

Gregg Sayre, Cuomo’s interim Public Service Commission chair, testified about the 2016 decision to have the state pay nearly $8 billion to keep the FitzPatrick, Nine Mile Point and Ginna nuclear power plants open. He said it was in part dictated by the timetable of the energy companies who own the plants.

Sayre said the owners of the FitzPatrick plant were threatening to close it last June, jeopardizing hundreds of jobs, while the operators of the Ginna plant needed to recommit to refuel their plant by September.

“We concluded that all of those plants were in imminent danger of closing within months,” Sayre said.

Audrey Zibelman, the former head of the PSC who oversaw the deal, left for a job in Australia earlier this year and has not yet been replaced.

At the time of the agreement, Cuomo and the commission argued that the nuclear plants provide a clean bridge fuel while reaching the state’s goal of getting 50 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030.

Englebright also questioned what he said is the “profound contradiction” of the state propping up the over 40-year-old plants in the Oswego and Rochester areas, while moving to close the Indian Point Nuclear Plant in Westchester, citing potential dangers.

He sarcastically asked Sayre and the other officials if they were aware of the damage caused by the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan.

“It has devastated the economy of the entire nation of Japan,” he said. “And yet I don’t see any scientific cost evaluation analysis or an evaluation in your presentation or a risk assessment.”

Sayre answered that it’s not within the state’s “jurisdiction” to decide whether a nuclear plant is safe; it’s the federal government that makes that decision. And he said the federal Nuclear Energy Commission has required U.S. nuclear plants to take steps to avoid a Fukushima-like disaster.

Nevertheless, Cuomo has said that keeping the Indian Point plant open defies “basic sanity” because of inherent risks. That plant will close in 2021.

Other Assembly members complained about the extra charges that ratepayers will have to finance from the rescue deal for the three plants. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz represents portions of the Bronx, which he said includes a large number of low-income people who will be unfairly burdened by the deal.

“It’s worse than a regressive tax,” Dinowitz said. “It’s like regressive squared, as far as I’m concerned.”

The state energy officials argued that the financing arrangement is fair, saying that New Yorkers will benefit by cleaner air overall and hopefully, slower climate change, by extending the life of the nuclear plants.

“We are not giving downstate a bad deal in this,” Sayre said. “It is fair to distribute the costs across the entire state.”

Lawmakers told the Cuomo administration energy officials that while they know they can’t change the bailout deal now, they hope in the future they can have more transparency when making major decisions about the state’s energy future.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.