When one thinks of nuclear power, images of cooling towers rising into the sky come to mind. Water is needed in nuclear power production in order to cool the “waste heat” generated and in case an accident occurs. The Union of Concerned Scientists explains:
For every three units of energy produced by the reactor core of a U.S. nuclear power plants, two units are discharged to the environment as waste heat. Nuclear plants are built on the shores of lakes, rivers, and oceans because these bodies provide the large quantities of cooling water needed to handle the waste heat discharge.
The state of New York is seeking to force power companies to use cooling towers instead of using “once-through” cooling. Currently, industrial plants take more than 16 billion gallons of water daily from New York waterways for cooling, killing more than 17 billion fish and their eggs annually. The new policy would require closed-cycle cooling for all existing facilities, which recycle and reuse water. This would reduce the amount of water taken in by about 98% and greatly minimize the environmental impact.
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) estimates a closed cooling system reduces “the impact on aquatic life by more than 90 percent”. Power companies are concerned it would cost billions of dollars to upgrade plants, and they are proposing underwater screens be installed at facilities instead, as well as contend water is only “slightly heated” when returned to rivers. According to Reuters:
Entergy said cooling towers, which can stand more than 600 feet tall and measure 300 feet in diameter, could not enter service before 2029 at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion to $2 billion.
The underwater screen meanwhile would take just three years to install and cost about $100 million.
Hence Entergy said the screens would better protect fish eggs and larvae over the 20-year period of a renewed Indian Point license, in large part, because they can be installed 12 to 15 years sooner than cooling towers.
Although some climate experts espouse nuclear power as part of the energy crisis solution, the use of water and negative effect on wildlife cannot be ignored. The Union of Concerned Scientists clarifies:
Nuclear power plants, whether using once-through or closed-cycle cooling, withdraw large amounts of water from nearby lakes, rivers, and oceans. In doing so, aquatic life is adversely affected. A 2005 study, for example, of impacts from 11 coastal power plants in Southern California estimated that the San Onofre nuclear plant impinged nearly 3.5 million fish in 2003 alone – about 32 times more fish than the other 10 plants combined. Untold numbers of fish larvae and other life entrained in the water do not survive journeys through nuclear power plants. The more water the plants use, the more aquatic life we lose.
Moving towards closed-cycle cooling systems is one step towards protecting rivers and lakes; however, the continuing drought requires any use of water to be carefully considered. Even in a closed system, fresh water is required to “compensate for the water vapor leaving the cooling towers” and has caused problems at several nuclear facilities across the United States.