Reeling in the Country’s Aging Power Plants: The Case for Fish-Friendlier Power

Consider this number: 200 billion.

That’s the estimated number of gallons of water withdrawn from surface waters (rivers, lakes and streams), saline waters (estuary/brackish and ocean waters), and aquifers each day in the United States to cool power plants.  Many of these plants – about 500 – were built in the middle of last century and withdraw billions of gallons of water every day using antiquated “once-through” cooling water intake systems.

That’s a big number. It’s more than the amount of water withdrawn for agricultural irrigation and public water supplies combined.  It’s also roughly equivalent to the volume of water that falls over Niagara Falls in a 3-year period.

This leads us to an even more alarming number.

Nationwide estimates of the number of fish, eggs and larvae sucked into power plant cooling systems each year vary from hundreds of billions up to one trillion. Many are injured or killed when they are trapped against or drawn through the screens covering the intake structures. That number doesn’t include the destruction of countless microscopic aquatic organisms, like phytoplankton, which play a critical role at the lower levels of the food chain. And if you mess with the bottom of the food chain, you mess with the foundation of the ecosystem.

To add insult to injury, these power plants then discharge their used cooling water, now hot, back to the waters surrounding the plant, wreaking even more havoc on the surrounding ecosystem.

State and federal regulators have found that the loss of large numbers of aquatic organisms affects not only stocks of many different species but also the overall health of ecosystems.  With a thirst for water that is almost insatiable, power plants' destruction of the full spectrum of aquatic creatures' eggs and larvae can sap biological energy from a water body and alter the natural functioning of the food chain. Fortunately, since 2001 things have changed and new plants are required to use “closed-cycle” cooling which reuses cooling water so water withdrawals are significantly reduced along with fish mortality (by about 95 percent).

But what about those 500 existing plants that still use once-through cooling?

There is a debate underway in several states and at the national level (with a draft federal rulemaking expected to be released for public comment early next year) about whether or not closed-cycle cooling is the right technological solution for the most damaging power plants.  Implementation of this proven technology would fulfill the legal requirement to use the “best technology available” that was imposed nearly 40 years ago. And closed-cycle cooling can be added, quite affordably, to most old plants.  In fact, such retrofits have been completed at over a half-dozen nuclear and fossil fuel plants, with more underway.

Unfortunately, for decades now, the owners of the country’s aging power plants have avoided installing closed-cycle cooling, largely by perpetuating myths designed to scare the public. Rather than upgrade their cooling systems the power industry threatens that many plants would have to close down, causing disruptions in service and soaring electricity prices. These threats simply aren’t borne out by statistics. And the cheaper solutions offered as an alternative, such as special screens fitted to the intake, simply aren’t as effective as closed-cycle cooling and do nothing to prevent hot water discharges.

In addition, the industry has exaggerated the aesthetic and environmental impacts of closed-cycle cooling, saying that the technology would require large towers and would have air quality impacts. In most instances, modern closed-cycle cooling systems can be established in an array of much smaller “cells” that blend in with existing site structures.

Also, industry claims regarding air quality impacts are based on unrealistic scenarios. A recent economic analysis of New York’s older power plants effectively dispelled these myths (pdf) by showing that closed-cycle cooling is affordable at all but one or two New York plants and that if only one coal-fired plant repowered as a result of a requirement for closed-cycle cooling, there would be an air quality benefit.

While the power industry understandably wants to protect their massive profits, our precious waterways, and the fish that inhabit them, are public resources, to be enjoyed – and defended -- by the people of this country.

For several decades, aging power plants have been the big one that got away.  It is up to our federal and state government to finally reel in the industry and end this senseless destruction.

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