BUCHANAN, N.Y. (AP) – 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 losses.

Closely watched case

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.

Billions of eggs

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.

Reducing the numbers

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 backs.”

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 were declining.

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.

Cost of business

“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.

New regulations

“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 of water.

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, and returned.

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.


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