08/30/2010 04:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Power plants and fish life

(Originally published as an op-ed in the Times Union on August 8, 2010).

By Kyle Rabin and Reed Super

The Indian Point nuclear power plant has been grabbing headlines again, this time because of its devastating impact on fish. But that plant is just one of 25 aging power plants in New York which are damaging the ecology of the state's rivers, lakes and estuaries. From the Great Lakes to the Hudson River to Long Island's shores, power plants built in the middle of last century, most of them fossil-fueled, withdraw billions of gallons of water every day using antiquated "once-through" cooling water intake systems. (New York ranks third highest among the 50 states with respect to power plant water withdrawal.)

2010-08-30-20090630NorthportPowerPlant010.jpgTheir thirst for water almost insatiable, New York's power plants suck in and kill nearly 17 billion eggs, larvae and young fish each year. An additional 171 million larger fish are injured or killed annually when they are trapped on intake screens. Undocumented is the destruction of countless microscopic aquatic organisms such as phytoplankton, which play a critical role at the lower levels of the food chain. These power plants also discharge used cooling water, now hot, back to the waters surrounding the plant.

State and federal regulators have found that the loss of large numbers of aquatic organisms affects not only stock of various species but also the overall health of ecosystems. Power plants' destruction of aquatic creatures' eggs and larvae saps biological energy from the waterbody and alters the natural functioning of the food chain.

Plants built since 2001 have been required to use "closed-cycle" cooling, which recycles cooling water and reduces water withdrawals and fish mortality by 95 percent. The debate currently under way concerns a proposed state policy that identifies closed-cycle cooling as the performance goal for the 25 large, most damaging existing power plants. This proven technology would finally implement the legal requirement to use the "best technology available" that was imposed nearly 40 years ago. 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.

For decades, the owners of New York's 25 aging power plants have avoided installing closed-cycle cooling, largely by perpetuating myths designed to scare the public.

The power industry's threat that many plants would close down, rather than upgrade their cooling systems, simply isn't borne out by the numbers. Nor are their claims that electricity prices would soar. And cheaper technologies, 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. Because power company profits in New York are high, they can afford to install closed-cycle cooling. Requiring the 25 antiquated plants to upgrade would reduce the corporate bottom line slightly, but consumers would see less than a 1 percent increase on their monthly power bill. The plants that set the market price are newer ones that already have closed-cycle cooling, and thus New Yorkers are paying for closed-cycle cooling, but just aren't getting it. Those findings were recently documented in a detailed economic analysis on file with the state that no one has been able to refute.

The industry has also exaggerated the aesthetic (e.g. height) and environmental (air pollution) impacts of closed-cycle cooling. Modern closed-cycle cooling systems don't necessarily require large towers but rather an array of much smaller "cells" that blend in with existing site structures. Industry claims regarding air quality impacts are based on unrealistic scenarios. In fact, the retirement of an outdated power plant or two would translate to an overall improvement in air quality.

While the power industry understandably wants to protect its massive profits, our precious waterways and the fish that inhabit them are public resources of the people of New York state. For several decades, the aging power plants have been like the big ones that got away. Now it is up to our state government to finally reel in the industry and end this senseless destruction.

Kyle Rabin is director of the Network for New Energy Choices. Reed Super is a public interest environmental attorney.