What does an ox’s propensity for violence have to do with a leaky nuclear reactor? One is an ancient, Jewish example of negligence; the other is a very contemporary one. But the ethical imperative is the same: When there’s an imminent risk of danger to the public, it’s morally wrong to do nothing.
Let’s start with the present. Twenty-five miles north of New York City, the crumbling Indian Point nuclear power plant is leaking radioactive water. And yet what has been the government’s response? Forge ahead with a 42-inch natural gas pipeline right underneath that power plant.
Although The New York Times published an excellent op-ed on the plant this week, that article omitted the pipeline entirely, focusing only on the need to close Indian Point.
To be sure, there’s a strong case to be made for closure. Indian Point went online on September 16, 1962, when gasoline cost 31 cents and JFK was president. As you might expect, a power plant built before the invention of the pocket calculator has had its share of mishaps. (Indian Point actually comprises three plants; the younger two went online in 1974 and 1976.) In 2015, for example, it experienced seven unplanned shutdowns.
And on February 5 of this year, Entergy, the company that operates the plant (“safe, secure, vital,” it says), reported elevated levels of the radioactive isotope Tritium in groundwater wells. Highly elevated: Levels of Tritium increased 65,000% and reached 700 times higher than threshold safety levels.
Add that to the nuclear waste at the facility, which is also leaking out because Indian Point was never intended to be a long-term waste storage site.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, to his credit, believes that it’s time to retire the Indian Point plant and, among other things, invest in renewables. So did that New York Times op-ed.
But it seems that one of those “other things” is Spectra Energy’s Algonquin Incremental Market project, a web of natural gas pipelines that stretches from New Jersey to Boston.
In other words, fracking. The AIM pipeline, if completed, will pipe fracked natural gas (that is, methane) from the Appalachians to New England. Cuomo has so far been silent on the AIM pipeline, giving it his tacit approval. FERC, the federal agency responsible for the pipeline, approved it in 2015.
Now, common sense would seem to disagree. Natural gas pipelines rupture all the time; there were 119 pipeline accidents in 2014. Right now, a gas storage leak outside Los Angeles is spewing 62 million cubic feet of methane into the atmosphereevery day. And the AIM pipeline would run just 105 feet away from the Indian Point plant. Twenty million people live within 50 miles.
The icing on the cake? Both the plant and the pipeline lie less than a mile from a fault line.
How is any of this possible?
First, for all the common-sense objections to a huge natural gas pipeline passing underneath a crumbling nuclear power plant on a fault line 25 miles north of the largest city in America, the fact is that both the pipeline and the plant have continually obtained regulatory approvals. And Spectra, the company building the pipeline, points out that it has older, smaller pipelines across the Indian Point property already, and they’ve operated without incident for decades.
Of course, critics charge that both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which monitors Indian Point, and FERC, which monitors the pipeline, are in the pockets of their respective industries. But the i’s have all been dotted.
Second, New York and New England need energy. And while Cuomo’s renewable energy plan could offset the power lost by taking Indian Point offline — currently about 13% of New York State’s total energy consumption — that doesn’t compensate for the fracked methane that would power New York and Southern New England.
Moreover, if you think through Cuomo’s logic, the risk of a pipeline underneath a closed plant is far less significant than that of a pipeline under an open one. In a way, supporting the AIM pipeline gives him ammunition to oppose Indian Point.
Unfortunately, in the meantime, both are chugging along. Indian Point continues to split uranium atoms, and ground has been broken on the part of the AIM pipeline that will cross the Hudson River underneath it.
Here’s where that goring ox comes in. Jewish law is clear, in general and in detail, that it is negligent to create a risk to the public. If you let an ox loose, and it gores someone, you are responsible, because you placed the risk in the public domain.
The Indian Point plan is a modern-day ox. But as long as it remains open, or its waste remains on site, so is the Spectra Pipeline.
Indeed, the Pipeline-plus-Plant risk gets even worse. Perversely, the NRC includes terrorism in its purview, but only for the plant itself. The pipeline, meanwhile, has not been deemed a terrorist target at all, even though if you can blow up the pipeline, you might be able to blow up the plant.
You might not even need explosives. According to the Wall Street Journal, Iranian-backed hackers gained control of a dam near Rye, New York, in 2013. Although nothing came of the attack, it nonetheless showed how the country’s power infrastructure is highly vulnerable to cyber attack. So it’s possible that even if the pipeline-plant-megacity-fault-line combination isn’t enough of an environmental risk, it may be a national security one.
Activists scored a recent victory on these grounds last November, when Cuomo rejected a proposal to build a liquefied natural gas port near Long Island, citing the “potential for disaster” in case of another super-storm or a terrorist attack. Cuomo had previously banned fracking in New York, citing health risks. Clearly, activists are hoping for a similar step here.
Of course, opponents of the pipeline also have a wider agenda. Some are NIMBYs (“Not In My Back Yard”). Some are greens who want to ban fracking and generally reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Some have resorted to direct action, including the “Montrose 9,” a group of nine activists who blocked the entrance to an AIM construction site last November.
But a lot are people worried that something must be slipping through the cracks. I’ll admit — I’m one of those people. I live, part time, in a small town eight miles from Indian Point. Every year, we get our updated evacuation guides in case something goes wrong. The risk of that happening is about to get a lot greater.
We need religious, as well as environmentalist, voices on this issue. We need to reframe our public discussion of environmental risk to include ethical, moral and religious traditions within it. And if we don’t, we may not be legally liable for what might happen, but I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @JayMichaelson