Water Wars in New York

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In April the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation denied Indian Point Nuclear Plant’s application for a water quality certification. In their 28 page letter, the NY DEC told the plant they have no alternative but to install expensive cooling towers to eliminate the plant’s impact on fish and fish larva in the Hudson River.

Power plants of all types (not just nuclear plants) that draw cooling water from bodies of water adversely affect aquatic organisms in three primary ways: thermally by heating the water, by entrainment where small fish and fish larva are sucked into the cooling system and are injured as they pass through, and by impingement where fish are injured by the plant’s intake but not sucked though the cooling system.

The plant had proposed installing “wedge wire screens,” essentially large high tech strainers on the water intake. The screens would virtually eliminate fish impingement, and would reduce entrainment (according to the DEC) by between 72% and 76%. That was not a sufficient reduction in entrainment to satisfy NY State.

The letter covered many issues, but the main reasons they denied the proposal are:

  1. They said cooling towers are a better option because they would eliminate about 20% more entrainment (at least 90%) than wedge wire screens.
  2. They said wedge wire screens are still “experimental in nature” and unproven in aquatic environments like the Hudson River, and at nuclear power plants like Indian Point.
  3. They also stated Indian Point was violating the law by killing endangered shortnose sturgeon by impingement and entrainment.

I would like to address each of these three claims:

First, while it is true that on any given day cooling towers are slightly more effective at eliminating fish and larva entrainment than wedge wire screens. That’s not the whole story. To assess the full benefit to the river one must consider how long each mechanism is in service. Wedge wire screens are relatively easy to install and could be in service within five years. That would mean the screens would be working and reducing entrainment for virtually the full term of Indian Point’s 20 year license extension. Cooling towers on the other hand would require 15 years to permit and build. This means cooling towers would provide no benefit at all for at least 15 years. When you consider the entire remaining life of the plant, wedge wire screens offer far more protection to Hudson River aquatic life.

It is illogical for NY State to object to the use of wedge wire screens one the basis that the technology is experimental and unproven. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency wedge wire screens have been successfully tested in a variety of settings in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Florida, and Kansas, and on bodies of water including the St John River and the Delaware River in conditions very similar to the Hudson River. In these examples wedge wire screens essentially eliminated impingement and reduced entrainment from 66 to 99%. On the issue of lack of experience at large nuclear plants, from the perspective of the cooling source, the fuel source is irrelevant; steam plants are steam plants. Wedge wire screens have been used at large 770 MW fossil fueled plants. While not quite as large as Indian Point where each of the two reactors is about 1000 MW, the size is in the same ballpark. Keep in mind each unit has it’s own separate intake from the river.

The DEC’s argument that Indian Point is killing endangered sturgeon is so ridiculous that it is Doug Peterson holds a shortnose sturgeonalmost hysterical! They should be embarrassed! The current Indian Point nuclear reactors have been on line since the mid-1970’s and during that time the population of shortnosed sturgeon in the Hudson River has INCREASED more than 400% (Sturgeon populations have skyrocketed in the Hudson River since the 1970’s). In fact, the fish population has recovered so much that shortnosed sturgeon are no longer endangered in the Hudson River. The fish is being kept on the endangered species list because it has not yet recovered in other rivers. While it may be true some baby sturgeon and sturgeon eggs are destroyed by the plant’s cooling water system, the impact on the fish population in the river ecosystem is negligible.

Cooling towers have problems of their own. The water in the Hudson River near Indian Point is brackish and contains a good deal of salt. If that water is used in a cooling tower it will emit a considerable amount of salt spray to the immediate vicinity. Salt is corrosive to vehicles, power lines, and building materials. Constant salt spray on vegetation will cause much of it to die, and salt deposition on the ground could make its way into drinking water wells. Turkey Point Nuclear plant in Florida experimented with a saltwater cooling tower many years ago and discovered it defoliated acres of sensitive wetlands. The same thing could happen if cooling towers are installed at Indian Point.

The state is focusing solely on water quality and is failing to consider the overall impact to the environment. Cooling tower construction would force the plant to shutdown for an extended period of time. During that shutdown replacement power would come primarily from coal and natural gas, both of which cause air pollution and greenhouse gasses. In addition, cooling towers emit particulate air pollution of their own.

Why is the NY DEC so insistent that Indian Point Nuclear Plant should install cooling towers?  Just follow the money: cooling towers would cost about ten times more than wedge wire screens. Wedge wire screens would provide more benefit over the life of the plant at one-tenth of the cost of cooling towers.

It’s Not About the Environment!

Don’t forget that the New York State Atty General Andrew Cuomo is hard core anti-nuclear. He’s made it very clear he wants the plant to shut down (as a side note, Andrew Cuomo recently announced he is running for governor of New York). The NY position on Indian Point is not about protecting the environment; it is about imposing onerous financial burden on the plant to make it less competitive with the end goal of shutting the plant down for good.   In this regard, New York like New Jersey and California is using the state’s authority over water quality permits as a way to raise costs and drive nuclear plants out of the market.

Why is the water quality certificate so important? The clock is ticking; the current operating licenses for the Indian Point rectors will expire in 2013 and 2015. The plant must have a valid water permit from NY State before the NRC can issue a license renewal.

Thankfully, this legal fight is far from over.

John Wheeler

“This Week in Nuclear”

Author: John Wheeler

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