Billions of fish, fish eggs die in
Oct 18, 2008 - Jim Fitzgerald - The Associated
For a newly hatched striped bass in the Hudson River,
a clutch of trout eggs in Lake Michigan or a baby
salmon in San Francisco Bay, drifting too close to
a power plant can mean a quick and turbulent death.
Sucked in with enormous volumes of water, battered
against the sides of pipes and heated by steam, the
small fry of the aquatic world are sacrificed in large
numbers each year to the cooling systems of power
plants around the country.
Environmentalists say power plants needlessly kill
fish and fish eggs with their cooling systems. Energy-industry
officials say opponents of nuclear power are exaggerating
The issue is affecting the debate over the future
of a nuclear plant in the suburbs north of New York
City. Power generators and environmentalists are watching
the outcome closely to see how to proceed in other
cities around the country. The U.S. Supreme Court
is expected to rule this term in a lawsuit related
to the matter.
The issue's scope is tremendous. More than 1,000
U.S. power plants and factories use water from rivers,
lakes, oceans and creeks as a coolant. At Indian Point
plant in New York, two reactors can pull in 1.7 million
gallons of water per minute. Nineteen plants on or
near the California coast use 16.3 billion gallons
of sea water every day.
As a result, billions of fish eggs and fish are lost.
California power plants kill an estimated 79 billion
fish and fish eggs each year. New York officials say
that 1.2 billion fish and eggs are destroyed each
year at Indian Point.
Most of the casualties are eggs, and for many species,
it takes thousands of eggs to result in one adult
fish. The U.S. Environmental Protection Administration,
which counts only species that are valuable for commerce
or recreation, uses various formulas and says the
number of eggs and larvae killed each year at the
nation's large power plants would have grown into
1.5 billion year-old fish.
Environmentalists note that even young fish usually
contribute to the ecosystem as food for larger fish
and birds. But once they've gone through the power
plant, they become decomposing detritus on the river
bottom and have moved from the top to the bottom of
the food chain, said Reed Super, an environmental
lawyer specializing in the federal Clean Water Act.
"This is a really significant ongoing harm to our
marine ecosystem," says Angela Haren, program director
for the California Coastkeeper Alliance in San Francisco.
Technology has long existed that might reduce the
fish kill by 90 percent or more. Cooling towers allow
a power plant to recycle the water rather than continuously
pump it in. New power plants are required to use cooling
towers, but most existing plants resist any push to
convert, citing the huge cost and claiming that most
fish eggs and larvae are doomed anyway.
"We're not killing grown fish," says Jerry Nappi,
spokesman for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, owner of
Indian Point. "If we were killing billions of grown
fish you'd be able to walk across the Hudson on their
And Nappi says the fish population in the Hudson
is stable, despite a recent study commissioned by
Indian Point opponents that said 10 of 13 species
He also says an insistence on cooling towers could
lead to Indian Point's closing and a sudden power
deficit in the New York metropolitan area.
"What you're really talking about is a $1.5 billion
hit on the company, and then it becomes an economic
decision whether they want to stay here," he says.
He believes talk of cooling towers is "a backdoor
attempt by some to shut down Indian Point."
A recent ruling dealt a small blow to Entergy's efforts.
The state Department of Environmental Protection,
which is pushing for cooling towers, said the simple
fact that so many fish eggs are destroyed each year
at Indian Point is proof of an environmental impact,
and Entergy can no longer maintain that it's not adversely
affecting the river.
There's still months of argument ahead, but the ruling
could be influential.
"We'll be very interested to see how that comes
out," said Katie Nekola, an attorney for Clean Wisconsin,
which failed to force cooling towers at the Oak Creek
plant on Lake Michigan but won a $105 million settlement.
Haren said the Indian Point case could influence
decisions in California. State agencies there are
working on new regulations that should limit the numbers
of fish killed in the Pacific Ocean and other bodies
According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, nuclear
plants drink from the Mississippi River, Chesapeake
Bay, Lake Michigan, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic
Oceans. Water used for cooling does not become radioactive.
Most plants without cooling towers use a system in
which water is continuously pumped in, used for cooling,
Various barriers are used to keep adult fish out
of the system; Indian Point uses screens with holes
measuring a quarter-inch by a half-inch.
However, fish that are blocked by the screen can
become trapped by the force of the water intake. To
rescue them, the screens rotate, and as they come
out of the water a spray knocks the impinged fish
into a trough, which is directed back to the river.
A California state report says 9 million fish are
caught on nets there every year. Even turtles, seals
and sea lions are occasionally caught. Environmentalists
believe many fish and other creatures are killed in
this process, or are injured and die later.
"When you hit a deer in your car, just because it
gets up and runs away doesn't mean it's not going
to die," Haren said.
But Ed Keating, environmental manager at the nuclear
subsidiary of Public Service Enterprise Group Inc.,
said that probably only 1 percent of the fish caught
get killed on the screens. Dara Gray, environmental
supervisor at Indian Point, says there's no reason
to believe that any fish are injured or killed by
being caught on the screen. Entergy has even added
heavy lids over the trough, because raccoons had been
climbing up and feasting on rescued fish.
In the process known as closed-cycle cooling, used
mostly in newer plants, the number of fish and eggs
sucked in or impinged is sharply reduced because cooling
towers use so much less water.
Some plants with cooling towers don't have to worry
about fish at all. PSEG Fossil has plants in New Jersey
that now take treated wastewater from sewage plants.