In a stunning change of position, federal regulators have downgraded by a factor of 1,000 the 31-year-old data assessing the fish killed annually by the Indian Point nuclear power plant. In addition, the regulators assert the plants’ thermal plume causes minimal damage to the Hudson River environment and may fit state requirements for a hot water discharge permit.
The direct impact of the change by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will play out over the next few months in the ongoing fight between the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Entergy Nuclear, owners of the plants, over the continuing use of Hudson River water to cool its massive equipment. The state has been insisting that Indian Point construct a closed cycle cooling system – sort of an industrial radiator recycling water – rather than suck in enormous amounts of river water, pass it through a heat exchanger, and dump the heated water back into the river. A closed cycle system would use 95 percent to 98 percent less water than the current once-through system, and would end the dumping of hot water into the river.
Entergy is the largest water user of 40 power plants around the state which the DEC is targeting for cooling system changes in an effort to bring them into compliance with the Clean Water Act and end the annual destruction of billions of river fish (http://bit.ly/NXlt8s ). If the twin nuclear plants do not obtain a discharge permit from DEC, it will not be able to operate even if the NRC grants its request to extend its 40-year operating licenses another 20 years.
The conflict stems from the enormous amounts of water used and the heat dumped back into the river. The plants draw 2.5 billion gallons of water daily, about double the water used each day by the nine million residents of, and visitors to, New York City and adjacent Westchester County. That influx of water into a 40-foot-wide siphon sucks in fish of all sizes, trapping larger ones against internal screens and sucking smaller ones and hatchlings fatally into the heat sink. The plants dump some 30 billion BTUs of heat per hour into the river. That is the equivalent of the heat that would be generated by exploding a nuclear bomb the size of the one which leveled Hiroshima approximately every two hours day in and day out.
The change in the assessment of Indian Point fish kills was made to a formula in a new Supplement to Volume 2 of the NRC’s barely two-year-old, 700-page Environmental Impact Assessment of the plants’ massive water drain on what is termed the Essential Fish Habitat of the Hudson River. The count of fish killed by being trapped against the screens, and the far larger number of hatchlings – less than a half inch in diameter – which are “entrained,” or sucked through the screens and into the system were based on surveys taken by Consolidated Edison, the plants’ original owners, from 1981 to 1987. The figures have been accepted the company and state as accurate since then.
For the larger fish, the study found about two billion fish per year were trapped against the screens and killed. But according to the NRC study, the 1981 death toll for small fish had been 3.3 trillion per year. But with the advent of new screens, “the total number of identified fish entrained has decreased at a rate of 187 billion fish per year since 1984,” and leveled off at an annual toll of 300 billion baby fish.
At the time, NC spokesman Neil Sheehan stated in an email exchange that the huge numbers of small fish occurred because “The entrained fish are generally not mature fish, because mature fish don’t fit through the plant intake screens. Also, the mostly juvenile or young-of-year fish are only capable of weakly swimming against a current.
“Staff looked at overall entrainment data, produced by previous Indian Point owners in the 1980s, and observed a declining trend for entrainment over the years of monitoring. It’s difficult to say whether such a trend would continue or where it would be today, but it is the best data available.”
The numbers drew the attention of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which stated fish stocks along the North Atlantic seaboard “are not currently over fished, but fall below historic levels. This observation suggests that the Hudson River's ability to support and produce living aquatic organisms has been compromised over the years by lost habitat quality and quantity as humans have dredged, filled, and withdrawn river water for a myriad of uses, resulting in conflicts of use with fishery resources.”