How Liberals Created, Then Destroyed, Publicly Owned Nuclear Power

The battle over New York’s Indian Point power plant was quietly a battle for the soul of American liberalism.

Nuclear Plant Inspector

An inspector examines a giant steam generator containing thirty-nine miles of tubing at the Westinghouse plant in Lester, Pennsylvania, before the unit is installed at the nuclear power plant at Indian Point, New York. (Fox Photos / Getty Images)

On a chilly Sunday in February, thirty miles up the Hudson River from New York City, a few hundred environmentalists descend on the Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power station, dreaming of a world powered instead by wind and sun. Skewing young and college-educated, they’re led by a New York City Democratic congresswoman famous for her bold, progressive advocacy.

Fifty feet away, police are holding back the power plant’s supporters — the members, friends, and families of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 1-2, the union that represents four hundred employees at the plant. They outnumber the environmentalists several times over.

With chants, signs, and bullhorns, the union mounts its defense of Indian Point. It’s safe — they wouldn’t want their members working there if it weren’t. It’s clean — there’d be more air pollution and more dependence on imported fossil fuels without it. And it’s reliable — “When the lights go out, they’ll understand why nuclear energy should be on the scene,” a labor leader tells a reporter.

But most important to them, it’s a source of good union jobs in a time of high unemployment.

The progressive congresswoman tries — but fails — to convince the workers: “We want to save your jobs.” They’re the unfortunate victims of the plant’s owner and should unite with the environmentalists. Besides, a nationwide shift to renewable energy, another legislator tells the crowd, would create more jobs than it kills.

The protest seems familiar today. But it happened nearly half a century ago, in 1976, led not by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but by a prior progressive champion, Bella Abzug.

In our era, though, environmentalists have finally gotten their wish. Indian Point’s last nuclear plant, Unit 3, permanently shut down on April 30, 2021, a year after its older sibling, Unit 2.

With these two plants went a quarter of New York City’s electricity — all of it emissions-free. As the New York Times reported, in the year after Unit 2 was shut down, replacement power came primarily from natural gas plants, needlessly spewing more carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon emissions from the state’s power plants increased 15 percent, according to an E&E News analysis.

Nuclear closures around the world, from California and Vermont to Germany and Japan, have all led to this same outcome. But against all reason, Governor Andrew Cuomo and several well-financed nonprofits promised that Indian Point would be replaced with renewable energy.

It turns out that those workers a generation ago were right: nuclear power was indeed replaced with far dirtier fossil fuels, leading to more carbon emissions and more air pollution. Now their successors have to watch nearly one thousand high-wage, heavily unionized jobs disappear — and their small towns deflate — as capital moves to greener pastures elsewhere. The union’s president likened it to deindustrialization in Detroit.

And yet, somehow, this travesty for workers and the environment has been spun by many environmental activists as a victory. How did we get here?

A Funeral for New York’s Clean Energy

On its final day of operation, the union and other Indian Point supporters held an event to honor the workers and the plant. “I hate to see it leave, ’cause we’re liable to have blackouts now,” said a ninety-three-year-old retired union carpenter who worked there for thirty-five years. “They were our largest employer and taxpayer, so [these are] some difficult times,” said the mayor of Buchanan, the village that has hosted the plant for half a century. “Thank you for being such an outstanding partner to thousands and thousands of children and supporting hundreds and hundreds of educators,” said the school district’s superintendent.

Elsewhere, environmental groups celebrated. “It’s been an honor for NRDC to work with our tireless partners and advocates who have fought long and hard to close Indian Point,” announced the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has over $300 million in the bank. “Let’s raise a glass to everyone who was brave and worked hard [to shut it down],” cheered Alec Baldwin.

Too many liberals — and too many on the Left — have become convinced that our ecological goal is increasing renewable energy, as opposed to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. And for the latter, far more essential goal, shutting down even a single safe nuclear power plant is a huge step back.

Aerial view of the Indian Point
Aerial view of the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Westchester County. (Susan Watts / NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

But beyond climate change or the electrical grid, the premature closure of Indian Point also tells another story. From Rooseveltian public power to private markets, this plant lived through capital’s remaking of national infrastructure over the past several decades — with major assistance from liberals. Once concerned with labor, production, and industrial policy, today’s liberals are increasingly focused on culture, moralism, and the professional stewardship of elite-funded nonprofits.

And though capitalism has dynamically remade the world around Indian Point over the decades, the progressive outlook toward the plant and toward nuclear energy more broadly has remained stuck in the “small is beautiful” environmentalism of the 1970s New Left.

It’s a myopia that now poses a threat to our ability to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

America’s State-Owned Power

When it first went online in 1976, Indian Point Unit 3 was just one of the power plants owned by the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the country’s largest state-owned public power utility.

Initially conceived by Progressive Era Republicans and finally signed into law in 1931 by Democratic governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, NYPA instituted a new model for electricity generation in America.

Instead of granting franchises to private monopoly utilities, NYPA would meet the state’s rising electricity needs by directly building and operating infrastructure for hydroelectric power. Their first generation project was designed to supply a quarter of the state’s annual electricity.

NYPA naturally became the enemy of private utility companies; it was, after all, a government-owned competitor.

In New York and elsewhere, that government power was tied explicitly, and legally, to the hydrological resources of the land — resources that are finite and geographically constrained. After the first two projects, NYPA found itself ringing in the 1960s with rising electricity needs but no more massive hydroelectric sites to tap within New York.

That’s when the state decided it was time to enter the Atomic Age.

Postwar Liberalism’s Ambitions

The promise of nuclear energy was almost utopian in its optimism, and NYPA wanted a piece of the action. A 1961 agency report titled “Atomic Power” argued the case. New York needed to compete for industrial customers — and manufacturing jobs — from other states that had abundant coal (like Ohio) or hydropower (like Washington). Nuclear plants would also enable the agency to better equalize the seasonal variations of its hydroelectric plants for greater reliability of the regional power grid.

Since it didn’t need to earn profits for shareholders, “Atomic Power” argued, NYPA could bring nuclear energy to the state faster and more cheaply than the private utilities could.

With the state quickly reaching the limits of its electrical system, Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller tried to pass legislation in 1967 to authorize $8 billion in aid for doubling the power capacity — all of it would be private and most of it nuclear. But state Democrats objected.

Echoing the liberalism of their New Deal predecessors, New York Democrats sought to curb “atomic-age robber barons.” Senator Robert F. Kennedy led the charge, claiming the governor’s plan would “destroy the historic role of public power.” Kennedy insisted that NYPA be included in any nuclear development.

But instead of the earlier public power, in which the state’s monopoly over natural resources would subordinate private interests while expanding electrification, postwar liberalism proposed a more market-friendly public option. Kennedy argued that NYPA should own and operate nuclear plants as a pragmatic measure to keep prices down among its legitimate private competitors.

A year later, Rockefeller signed revised legislation that, in a concession to the liberals, granted NYPA the authority to build and operate nuclear plants.

Rockefeller’s program recognized nuclear power as critical for tackling the state’s air pollution as well. In the 1960s, New York City was facing a deadly smog problem. In one ten-day period in 1962, the city’s health department attributed roughly two hundred deaths to air pollution. In 1966, the mayor agreed to facilitate nuclear power construction to combat the problem. “So what,” the Daily News asked, “are we brave, dusty, soot-smeared New Yorkers waiting for?”

The same year the nuclear program was passed, NYPA announced their plans to build the FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant upstate. (A private nuclear plant planned for the same area was canceled immediately after the announcement.) Seven years later, FitzPatrick would be up and running — the first of two state-owned nuclear plants in New York.

With an eye on the needs and consequences of production, liberals were now expanding the domain of public power in New York — from the constraints of natural resources to the advanced industrial technology of nuclear energy.

Resisting the OPEC Shock

“Clean air and economical electricity” from nuclear power, as a newspaper ad put it, wasn’t just a public good — it was an opportunity for private utilities like Con Edison, which remains the electrical distribution utility for New York City to this day.

As a regulated monopoly, Con Edison could build massive new plants with a comfortable return guaranteed by the state and collected from consumers. And given frequent blackouts and brownouts in the 1960s and early ’70s, the state desperately needed Con Edison.

Thus, the revitalized Indian Point station was born, a mutual benefit for the state and for Con Edison’s shareholders. After an eight-year construction period, Unit 2 entered service in October 1974. But Unit 3 had a different beginning: it was owned by the state and not a private utility, thanks to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

In 1974, Con Edison was in crisis. The oil embargo by Arab petroleum exporters quadrupled prices for fuel oil that the majority of the company’s power plants depended on.

Seeking to raise cash any way possible, Con Edison looked into selling off two power plants under construction in the New York City area. Since the state’s growing energy requirements needed those plants to come online, NYPA was the obvious buyer.

One of the two plants was a dirty, oil-fired plant located in Astoria, Queens. The other was nuclear-powered Indian Point Unit 3 — which NYPA could legitimately own and operate, thanks to Kennedy and state Democrats. NYPA acquired both partially constructed plants in 1975 in a deal that some liberals, like Representative Abzug, derided as a corporate bailout.

When it came online the following year, the clean public power from Indian Point Unit 3 was immediately put to good use. In the first year, the city saved up to $20 million in electricity bills by switching to NYPA, preventing some of the layoffs that austerity soon brought to New York City. The plant powered the city’s subway and commuter rail systems, public schools, public housing, and street lighting.

Public power wasn’t just producing more electricity for residences and businesses without the profits; it was powering the public institutions the working class depended on. And in the process, it snatched critical infrastructure out of the hands of capital.

Around the same time, though, new ideas about energy and environmentalism were starting to spread. And many liberals decided that Indian Point — despite serving as public power — was now a danger that distracted from safer energy solutions.

Liberalism Learns to Love “Small and Local”

“Nuclear power is no longer the strategy of tomorrow,” Assemblyman K. Daniel Haley declared, “but that of yesterday. I am convinced that the people of the State of New York . . . want their institutions to develop solar energy.”

Haley, a Harvard-educated liberal Democrat with a background in military intelligence, used his leadership on multiple energy committees to steer the state away from nuclear power. He was the driving force behind the Safe Energy Act of 1975, the “basic thrust” of which was, in his words, “Let’s go develop solar and wind energy, and let’s not develop any more nuclear power” — with support from environmentalist groups and newly elected liberal governor Hugh Carey.

Even before the acquisition of the two plants from Con Edison, Haley tried to stop NYPA’s expansion into nuclear energy, declaring Indian Point “the wrong kind of power” for the agency but ignoring the fossil-fuel-powered Astoria plant purchased at the same time.

Yet it was the latter plant that for decades spewed pollution into the air in the part of the city still known as “Asthma Alley.” In the trade-off between real death and illness today versus apocalyptic “what-ifs” about tomorrow, the former was judged to be the safer option.

Today, of course, we understand an even more insidious effect of air pollution than asthma: global warming. But NASA climate scientist Dr James Hansen’s landmark testimony to Congress, which introduced global warming to the public, was then still over a decade away. Hansen, a staunch proponent of nuclear power, warned in 2020 that when Indian Point shuts down, “pollution will increase substantially and more people will die.”

The Democrats’ opposition to nuclear energy was in place years before the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island Unit 2, which terrified the nation but harmed neither workers nor the public. The perception of disaster drove a response that far outweighed the actual problem, in part caused by mixed messages from officials. The coincidental release of the nuclear power disaster thriller The China Syndrome two weeks earlier didn’t help.

Decades of public health studies have repeatedly refuted claims that the Three Mile Island accident caused an increase in cancers and other ill effects in the surrounding population. These studies contradict anecdotal evidence offered by experts, some organized into nonprofits for this cause, like Three Mile Island Alert. (Notably, an even older coal plant that’s still running just a few miles downriver from Three Mile Island fails to attract the same scrutiny, despite the known deadly effects of its air pollution.)

When the Three Mile Island accident happened, such cognitive dissonance over nuclear safety was already souring public opinion. As historian Brian Balogh details in Chain Reaction, the dawn of the 1970s saw a huge increase in opposition to nuclear power, stemming from environmental concerns.

In the presence of this growing war between experts — and the environmental groups’ knack for capturing media attention — the public began doubting the ability of the federal government to regulate. According to one poll, nationwide opposition to local nuclear plant construction increased from 25 percent in 1971 to 45 percent in 1978, all before the Three Mile Island accident.

As the new opposition took hold in New York, rising electric power needs would have to be met with conservation efforts rather than with new power plants — doing more with less. The first environmentally robust state law for power plant siting was established in 1972. Between 1972 and 1988, nine power plant construction applications were submitted to the state, three of which were nuclear plants (including one from NYPA), but only one of those plants was ever built — a coal plant in 1979.

Air pollution and power shortages concerned the public. But in the ideological calculus of 1970s environmentalism, public enemy number one was still nuclear power, against which renewables promised a safer world of energy free of risks.

In 1979, the Democrat-controlled New York State Assembly’s newly formed energy committee laid out these shifting priorities. “[T]he days of large central generating plants are numbered. Local generation by small scale plants would be more energy efficient . . . and less environmentally unacceptable.” And judging the consumer to be the new agent of change, they sought “to protect the rights of those who turn to solar energy.”

The stage was set for yet another transformation of New York electric power. And as with the rest of the country, the hunt was on for market forces to unleash and public goods to privatize.

“This Is Our NAFTA.”

In the mid-’90s, the Clinton administration helped spur electricity deregulation across the country — hot on the heels of Margaret Thatcher’s government in Britain.

Electricity deregulation meant breaking up the utilities industry into separate generation, transmission, and distribution businesses, for the sake of market competition and, ostensibly, lower rates for consumers. The union workers in the utilities industry, however, saw the writing on the wall.

“Haven’t we learned from the path of devastation left by the deregulation of the airline, trucking, and telephone industries?” a local Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) leader asked. Over in California, where the fight over electricity deregulation was fiercest, UWUA’s national deregulation coordinator warned: “This is our NAFTA.”

A political question began to form: Should competitive market forces be unleashed on the nuclear plants, too?

On this question, it was the nonprofits that some critics have called “Big Green” who sounded most like dogmatic capitalists. Pace University’s environmental law program, the Sierra Club, and NRDC argued, according to the New York Public Service Commission, that “all power, whatever its source [including nuclear], should be subjected to the discipline of the marketplace.”

Against them, the UWUA, an upstate nuclear plant host city, and various utilities owners all argued that nuclear power’s operational characteristics demanded an exception to that discipline.

The Assembly Energy Committee, which had shunned nuclear power decades earlier, held multiple hearings between 1998 and 2001 on the role of nuclear plants in deregulation. And like their predecessors, they had no interest in the emissions-free benefits of nuclear energy. Only executives from NYPA and a private utility argued for those benefits — the latter even mentioned the importance of the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming. Liberal lawyers and members of the assembly, on the other hand, insisted nuclear energy couldn’t possibly be clean.

It was two decades after the shift away from nuclear power, a decade after Hansen’s warning to Congress about greenhouse gases, and shortly after international diplomacy began focusing on global warming — and New York liberals still couldn’t rethink their ideological calculus on energy.

The “believe science” crowd did not believe the science.

Greens Cheer for “the Market”?

If private utilities were to be broken up into separate generation and transmission entities, what about the public power agency that spans both?

Assembly Energy Committee chairman Paul Tonko argued that NYPA should sell off its two nuclear plants and its state-spanning transmission system, just like private utilities were compelled to do. NYPA needed to go back to its original vision of public power, liberal Democrats argued, wherein its domain was confined to natural — not atomic or fossil — resources. They even tried to legislatively prohibit any state takeover of divested private nuclear plants. That same year, Democrats wanted NYPA “to provide at least $100 million annually in funding for energy conservation and renewable energy projects for consumers.”

But the union workers at NYPA’s nuclear plants were steadfast supporters of continued public ownership. At one hearing, a leader of IBEW Local 2032 — and former operator at NYPA’s FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant — declared the plant “a valuable asset that New York State should keep.”

Just look around — there are new companies, and companies that have merged with other companies to form bigger companies, popping up all over the place. They are buying power generation plants with one thing in mind: to make a profit, not to serve the hardworking people of New York state. . . . It’s kind of like Miller Brewing Company that left. They left, [and] everybody thought something was going to go in their place — nothing went in.

NYPA nonetheless finalized a deal to sell its two nuclear plants to private utility company Entergy in late 2000. The sale was driven by a Republican administration with the blessing of the Democrats, who only disputed its closed-door nature. With that, New York’s state-owned nuclear power was sold for $967 million — the largest privatization in the state’s history.

As a result, NYPA’s workforce was halved, shrinking from 3,412 to 1,697 employees as the entire nuclear division’s personnel — along with their skills and know-how — migrated from the state’s payrolls to Entergy’s. After some years of operational challenges, NYPA exited the nuclear industry for good.

A shift supervisor at the Public Service Company of Colorado’s Fort St. Virgin nuclear power plant checks the gauges on the main control panel. (Denver Post via Getty Images)

A Kennedy Leads the Charge

For the market-driven environmentalists at Pace University, Sierra Club, and NRDC, for whom power comes from courts instead of labor unions, deregulation brought hope for change. Nonprofits like them saw it as a key ingredient in squashing nuclear power and keeping energy small and local. But to accomplish that, they relied on an environmental legal strategy developed in the 1960s by an earlier liberal generation — albeit in the very same place.

That environmental campaign was the subject of a damning 1977 exposé in Harper’s. Starting in the early 1960s, the old money landowners of Westchester waged an almost two-decade-long legal and media campaign against Con Edison, against the democratic will of local deindustrialized towns in need of jobs, and against a clean energy project — in a time of blackouts, brownouts, and deadly air pollution. The Westchester landowners’ deceptively noble cause was the “scenic preservation” of the Hudson River. And given the elite constituency of the group, media like the New York Times were eager to champion it.

The power project in question — the Storm King pumped-storage hydroelectric facility — would have essentially been a massive renewable battery, with power capacity greater than both Indian Point plants put together. Had it actually been built, it would have played a tremendous role in decarbonizing New York today.

But in 1980, the environmentalists won. Plans to build the hydroelectric plant were canceled. In the end, the campaign for “scenic preservation” established a new federal precedent in the 1970s giving independent groups legal standing to challenge construction projects on environmental grounds, particularly around impacts on water.

Another result of the campaign was the founding of two of the principal nonprofit belligerents against Indian Point nuclear power: Riverkeeper and NRDC.

Leading the charge at Riverkeeper in recent decades was chief prosecuting attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Though his father helped expand New York public power into the Atomic Age, the younger Kennedy would play a key role in killing Indian Point.

Kennedy’s elite environmental influence went beyond Riverkeeper. He also served as a senior attorney at NRDC and as a law professor at Pace, whose Environmental Litigation Clinic he founded in 1987 — both of which had demanded dogmatic market discipline for New York’s nuclear plants in the deregulation process.

“We’ve been pretty true to the original vision,” Kennedy said in a 1996 profile of Riverkeeper, “a community-oriented, blue-collar environmentalism, a people-oriented environmentalism.”

Twenty years later, their annual star-studded fundraiser raked in $1.6 million in a single night. Sting played an acoustic set.

The “War on Terror” Meets Indian Point

With the defeat of the Storm King project in 1980, the nonprofits focused their attention on Indian Point, in particular its impact on the Hudson River.

“Certainly a holocaust of sorts has been inflicted upon marine life in the Hudson,” the Riverkeeper founder and Sports Illustrated columnist Robert H. Boyle once told the New York Times about Indian Point. With his term “Hiroshima-on-Hudson,” Boyle meant to generate concern for fish, not for people.

Like many conventional power plants, not only did Indian Point kill fish in the process of taking in water for cooling, the plant also pumped (safe) water back at warmer temperatures, thereby leaving a human imprint on the river’s ecology. Both water problems could be mitigated, however, if plant owners and their shareholders could be coerced into paying for it — for example, by installing elaborate cages to block more fish.

Though the environmental challenge over water would be the legal focus of their fight against Indian Point, Riverkeeper and the other nonprofits landed on a primary media focus after tragedy struck New York.

Within two months of the September 11 attacks in 2001, Kennedy held a press conference from the steps of New York City Hall: What if the hijackers had targeted Indian Point instead? An HBO documentary made by Kennedy’s filmmaker sister Rory indulged further in the fantasy — for environmentalism, of course. Several studies have debunked the possibility of this particular apocalypse.

But that didn’t matter — fear once again outweighed facts. At Kennedy’s side at City Hall was Andrew Cuomo, then his brother-in-law, who was running unsuccessfully for governor.

It was through Cuomo that Big Green would eventually get what they needed to kill off Indian Point once and for all.

With Cuomo leading the attack as attorney general, New York in 2007 became the first state in the country to formally oppose the federal relicensing of a nuclear plant. The state’s press release heralded praise from an assortment of green nonprofits. The director of one summarized the liberal thinking: “With cleaner, safer, more sustainable sources, including renewables and energy efficiency, readily available to replace the power from Indian Point, why continue to play Russian roulette with our future?”

After Cuomo was elected governor of New York, he and Big Green reached their legal endgame. The state would hold the plant’s nuclear license renewal hostage by refusing to grant it the necessary water permit — which the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission had no control over, despite its approval of the plant’s safety.

For that water permit, the state demanded that plant owner Entergy invest in massive cooling towers at a cost of $2 billion. (The state and the nonprofits refused Entergy’s offer to build a proven, cheaper, and quicker mitigation.) But if Entergy went through with the costly and disruptive upgrade, its profitability would be kneecapped, and the plant would die a slow death in the newly restructured market, thanks to competition from natural gas plants.

Once market forces are unleashed with deregulation, those who call the shots usually get what they want. In this case, it was Big Green.

Workers Lose

In 2017, Entergy finally gave up Indian Point — and the workers and neighboring communities that depended on it — in a deal with Cuomo and the Big Green nonprofits. The former agreed to shut it down a few years later, and the latter agreed to drop their lawsuits.

After the long battle, it made more sense to the New Orleans–based company to pack up and confine their nuclear business to their plants in the red states, where utilities mostly still enjoy regulated monopoly status. Of roughly 750 plant workers, one-fifth will go with them, while two-fifths will stick around for the fifteen-year decommissioning process. The rest are taking early retirement or are simply out of a job.

Angry at Cuomo and the company for keeping workers and the public in the dark about the deal, Local 1-2 official Craig Dickson gave one last defense of the plant — and of nuclear energy, “one of the cleanest non-emission forms of power generation, right up there with wind” — in a State Senate hearing. The state didn’t even have a plan to replace a quarter of Westchester and New York City’s power generation, he charged. “Where will those lost megawatts come from? How will they be paid for?”

But eventually there was a plan to replace that lost energy — three new natural gas plants that have sprung up since that 2017 hearing, whose shareholders will expect continued returns on investment for decades to come. According to the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, one plant’s owner was even found to have bribed a top Cuomo aide to specifically make the case that the reliability of New York’s electrical system post–Indian Point depended on it — a correct assessment.

At exactly 11 PM on Friday, April 30, 2021, workers in the control room at Indian Point Unit 3 pressed a button causing control rods to descend into the reactor and immediately stop the nuclear fission inside of it. That button press ended forty-five years of clean electricity generation.

At that 1976 rally, Local 1-2’s James Joy put in plain terms the division we’re still confronted with today. “People are concerned that someone like Bella Abzug [will float] up from the city to put another thousand people on the unemployment rolls.”