Newly elected U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, has made constructing a nuclear power plant in the region one of his top priorities.
It would be an expensive endeavor, conceivably costing as much or significantly more than the $4.6 billion GlobalFoundries computer chip plant under construction in Malta.
It inevitably would generate controversy, and could take years to complete — as long as two decades, based on past precedent.
Yet the economic payoff for the region would be huge, Gibson said in a telephone interview last week.
"To me, energy will be a game changer for our economy," he said.
Nuclear power is the missing element in a Tech Valley development strategy that currently focusses on nanotechology, computer chip manufacturing and expanded development and production of medical devices, he said.
The goal isn’t so much the direct jobs a nuclear plant would create, as it is providing a dependable supply of energy to support new development, said Jack Spencer, research fellow for nuclear energy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
There also are potential environmental benefits, say supporters of nuclear power.
"It certainly is green. There’s no carbon emissions at all," said Queensbury Supervisor Dan Stec, a former U.S. Navy nuclear engineer. "It’s healthier for the environment than a coal plant."
Gibson said it was Stec that got him interested in the nuclear concept about a year ago, when they both were seeking the Republican nomination in the congressional race.
Critics of nuclear power don’t argue about nuclear being cleaner than a coal-burning power plant.
But they say nuclear comes with risks to the environment.
A nuclear reactor makes electricity by splitting uranium atoms to make steam.
A large volume of water is drawn from a water body around the plant, and then pumped back into it, potentially raising the temperature of the water body, said Manna Jo Greene, environmental action director for Hudson Sloop Clearwater, an environmental group.
"With climate change, that temperature has (already) raised, and will continue to," she said.
The temperature factor was one of the reasons that a nuclear plant proposed in the late 1960s for Easton in Washington County was rejected, said Gordon Boyd, an energy consultant in Saratoga Springs.
For the size of plant they were contemplating, it was felt there was not enough water in the Hudson River for the plant to operate without warming up the river, said Boyd, a former reporter who covered the nuclear plant proposal for The Schenectady Gazette at the time.
"I doubt there is any more water in the Hudson today than there was 35 or 40 years ago," said Boyd, a partner in Energy Next, a consulting firm that administers group energy buying programs for chambers of commerce and municipal organizations.
There also is a danger of fish getting sucked into the cooling system or trapped in protective screens intended to keep them out of the system, said Greene of Hudson Sloop Clearwater.
Ten of 13 "signature Hudson River fish" species already are in decline, she said.
Gibson would not say whether a plant potentially would be built along the Hudson River or one of its tributaries, and would not say if there are any other rivers in the region with enough water for a plant.
"Look, I think it’s premature right now to start talking about site selections, other than the fact that we’re going to be interested in allowing communities to compete," he said.
Greene said environmentalists also have concerns about disposal of nuclear waste.
"From an environmental perspective and from a sustainable energy perspective, we would not support such an endeavor — at least from our first reaction," Greene said.
Boyd, the energy consultant, said there’s no question the region needs additional energy generation capacity, particularly if the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant on the Connecticut River shuts down.
"That closure is also going to have a ripple effect on the electric prices around here," he said.
"The question I would have, looking at a nuclear facility, is whether it’s feasible to bring a project online in time to meet any of these needs, or whether proposing it would have the effect of eclipsing any other proposal in the meantime and we end up not having the problem addressed at all," he said.
Stec said criticism of nuclear energy can be countered with the realty that energy consumption is increasing.
"I think the vast majority of Americans prefer to have the comforts that we enjoy today. And those require energy," he said.
Stec said many people may not realize the Navy already operates smaller-scale training reactors at its base in Milton, in Saratoga County.
"There are a couple of nuclear power plants 10 minutes from the race track in Saratoga," he said.
Growth in the nuclear industry has been stagnant for decades, largely because of public concerns about safety after the meltdown in the late 1970s at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.
"We saw places in the Northeast, specifically, of reactors being built and then never being able to become operational because politicians made it very difficult to ever bring them online," said Spencer, of the Heritage Foundation.
But federal policy and public opinion have been evolving, he said.
Two new reactors are currently under construction at Plant Vogtle near Atlanta, Ga., at a plant where there already are two existing reactors.
In 1992, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission streamlined the permitting process, making it a one-step process instead of requiring separate permits for construction and operation, Spencer said.
A comprehensive federal energy bill in 2005 established several different subsidies, which are enough to support construction of four to six new nuclear plants.
One of those subsidies is a loan guarantee program.
"That’s important because it allows a perspective company to get access to interest rates that make this more potentially profitable," Gibson said.
Gibson said there is bipartisan support for nuclear energy right now, as evidenced by President Obama saying in his 2010 State of the Union speech that nuclear will be a key component of his energy strategy.
"So I think that’s important to know that the president has made very supportive comments," he said.
Gibson said he is establishing a bipartisan regional energy panel that will advise him on an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy that would include nuclear power as well as renewable energy for the 20th Congressional District and the Albany area.
The panel will study the feasibility of locating a nuclear power plant in the region, and also a nuclear reprocessing plant, but give equal attention to renewable energy, he said.
Gibson said he has asked U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, to partner with him as a "co-equal" on the committee.
"One of Paul’s passions is renewables. And as you know, I support that as well," Gibson said.
Beau Duffy, a spokesman for Tonko, said the congressman is looking forward to hearing recommendations from the task force and finding common ground on energy issues between the two districts.
The local building trades unions have agreed to appoint a representative to serve on Gibson’s task force, said Larry Bulman, state political director for the New York Pipe Trades.
Speaking on behalf of the plumbers union, not in his role as Saratoga County Democratic chairman, Bulman said, "We actually agree with him on this issue."