New York is about to spew a lot more carbon into the air, thanks to Andrew Cuomo and anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s anti-nuclear crusade

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Anthony L. Fisher
·5 min read
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andrew cuomo robert kennedy jr
These 2013 file photos show New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, in Albany, N.Y. and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in Dallas, Texas. AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
  • Andrew Cuomo and the anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. pushed to close the Indian Point nuclear power plant.

  • But without nuclear energy, New York needs to burn a lot more fossil fuels to produce electricity.

  • This anti-science fearmongering in the name of environmentalism will, ironically, lead to more carbon emissions spewed into the air.

  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

New York's air is about to be filled with a whole lot more carbon dioxide, thanks in large part to the efforts of a couple of science-denying scions of political dynasties who claim to be acting in the interests of the environment.

The Indian Point nuclear power plant - located in Buchanan, New York, about 30 miles north of Manhattan - is slated to have its third and final reactor permanently shut down by the end of April, thanks to an order signed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2017.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. - Cuomo's former brother-in-law - and his activist group Riverkeeper have agitated for decades to shut down Indian Point. To make the case, Kennedy's thrown just about every scare-mongering worst-case scenario at the wall, regardless of its plausibility or scientific merit.

This is par for the course for RFK, Jr., a notorious anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist, who was one of the most prominent spreaders of misinformation with regards to the fully debunked theory that vaccines lead to childhood autism.

Indian Point's closure is being celebrated as a long and hard-fought win for environmentalists.

In reality, it's a pyrrhic victory.

It's very simple: No nuclear power means more fossil fuel burning, and more carbon emissions.

Emotionally-driven fears of nuclear power are nothing new, as disasters like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl created a staunch and lasting opposition to the technology.

But the fear of nuclear energy is running headlong into the need to confront climate change. In fact, scientific consensus holds that properly regulated and operated nuclear plants provide the most robust source of clean energy available.

New York is letting this unscientific anxiety get in the way of actually weaning off fossil fuels. The state passed a law in 2019 to have 70% of its energy produced by renewable sources by 2030, but without Indian Point's nuclear energy, the slack must be picked up by other sources.

Unfortunately, New York's current green energy capacity doesn't have the ability to fill this new gaping energy chasm. Add up all the energy produced by all of New York's solar and wind turbines combined, and it still doesn't produce enough juice to match just one of Indian Point's three reactors - two of which have already been shut down.

As a result, the state is burning more natural gas. But environmentalists hate natural gas, too, and they're pushing for a moratorium on building new natural gas facilities.

So if there's no nuclear energy, and no increase in natural gas energy production, and insufficient solar, wind, and hydroelectric power - how is the state supposed to generate the energy to keep the lights, computers, and air conditioners running?

There's no chance environmentalists would acquiesce to bringing back filthy coal-fired power plants. And government infrastructure projects - like renewable energy projects - tend to move at a glacially slow pace and miss deadlines.

So it seems that for an indefinite number of years in the Empire State, more natural gas-burning and more carbon emissions it shall be.

Kennedy and Cuomo are anti-science fearmongers

Cuomo has for years railed against Indian Point as a kind of "ticking time bomb" in NYC's backyard, arguing that it's "basic sanity" to shut it down.

Kennedy's been banging the anti-Indian Point drum for even longer.

HBO even released a documentary directed by Kennedy's sister, Rory, in 2004 called, "Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable." As you might expect, it's a one-sided narrative where the pro-nuclear voice is barely acknowledged, but a pre-senatorial Al Franken is interviewed as an anti-nuclear "expert," as is RFK, Jr.

But what's most striking about the doc is that it's almost exclusively about Indian Point's vulnerability as a terror target.

Computer renderings of a plane crashing into one of the reactors, setting off a mushroom cloud, are very much in line with the prevailing anxieties of those years immediately after 9/11, when much of American life still revolved around apocalyptic fears of Islamist terrorism.

In 2002, the Brookings Institution published a detailed analysis of the terror threat and nuclear energy. The TL;dr version is that even if terrorists attacked a nuclear plant, shutdown triggers would eliminate much of the danger of a meltdown, and there is no chance the reactors would explode like nuclear bombs.

A 2017 study by Environmental Progress - a pro-nuclear advocacy group of climate scientists and activists - found that Indian Point's shutdown would cause "power sector carbon emissions [to] skyrocket 29 percent" and that New York's dependence on fossil fuels [to produce electricity] will rise from 44 percent to 56 percent."

But despite strong arguments in favor of keeping the plant running, the anti-science scaremongering has won out, which given RFK Jr.'s history is no surprise.

For a long time, Kennedy was even a sought-after media guest to opine on environmental and medical issues - despite being a lawyer and not a scientist by trade.

His 2005 appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he spread anti-vaxx quack propaganda, has since become a notorious blemish on America's most trusted comic commentator's legacy for his unpreparedness and inability to call bullshit on an anti-science charlatan.

Now that anti-vaxxers have fallen out of fashion, Kennedy is no longer broadly-accepted as a science "expert." But for some reason this hasn't extended to his environmental activism, which at least in the case of Indian Point, exists on a plane where visceral emotion trumps scientific consensus.

What's worse, Kennedy and Cuomo's feel-good performative environmentalism will almost certainly wreak havoc on New York's environment.

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