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Proposal: cooling towers required for New York reactors

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

New York state has followed neighbouring New Jersey in introducing draft policy requiring certain industrial facilities, including nuclear power plants, to construct cooling towers. The move could cost nuclear operators in the state over US$2 billion to comply. In 2001, a report by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) and the Safe Energy Communication Council (SECC) shows how many US nuclear power plants kill large numbers of marine wildlife, including endangered species, as a result of their cooling systems.

(706.) WISE Amsterdam - The 2001 report, "Licensed to Kill: how the nuclear power industry destroys endangered marine wildlife and ocean habitat to save money", criticizes the use of "once-through" cooling systems. These systems use enormous quantities of water - typically 500,000 gallons (1.9 million liters; a US gallon = 3,785 liter) of water per minute - to condense the steam after it has passed through the turbines. This water also contains wildlife from the sea, lake or river it is drawn from.

Now, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released a draft policy on 10 March, calling for power plants and other facilities that use water for cooling purposes to recycle and reuse that water through a process known as "closed cycle cooling" technology. It said its plan will help implement "best technology available" requirements under the federal Clean Water Act. Previously, DEC has not prescribed a specific technology to achieve those best available technology requirements.

The proposed policy would apply to nearly all facilities designed to withdraw 20 million or more (US) gallons of water per day and that require a State Pollution Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) permit - unless an operator can demonstrate that closed cycle cooling technology cannot physically be implemented at a particular location. In such a case, DEC will require other technologies to achieve essentially the same level of protection for aquatic life as closed cycle cooling. Such determinations, DEC said, are made when an operator applies for or renews a SPDES permit.

The six nuclear reactors in the state - which supply almost one-third of electricity - may require some US$2 billion (1.5 billion Euro) in investment to continue operating.

DEC said: "Steam-electric stations such as fossil fuel and nuclear generating plants use by far the greatest volume of cooling water from our lakes, rivers and marine district." New York steam-electric plants use over six trillion (US) gallons of cooling water annually, resulting in the impingement and entrainment of more than 17 billion fish of all life stages each year, according to DEC estimates.

According to DEC, unlike a "once through" cooling process where water is drawn from a lake or river and subsequently discharged back into it, closed cycle cooling technology re-circulates the water instead of discharging it after one use, reducing the impacts on aquatic life by more than 90%. It said that the policy "will add significant protections for New York's vital fisheries by slashing water intake at certain power plants and other industrial facilities."

DEC notes in its draft policy that California is developing a policy to establish wet closed-cycle cooling as the performance benchmark in meeting requirements of the Clean Water Act. The state has set draft compliance dates of 2018 for non-nuclear facilities and 2021 for nuclear facilities.

Exelon warned in January that it might have to close its Oyster Creek nuclear power plant after New Jersey officials issued a draft permit requiring cooling towers to be constructed. The plant currently discharges heated water into a canal that is connected to Barnegat Bay, a small brackish arm of the Atlantic Ocean.

Currently, of the USA's total of 104 nuclear power reactors, 60 use once-through cooling from rivers, lakes or the sea, while 35 use wet cooling towers. Nine units use dual systems, switching according to environmental conditions.

Sources: WISE News Communique 544, 2 March 2001: "Cooling water systems kill marine wildlife" / World Nuclear News, 19 March 2010
Contact: NIRS