SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
January 20, 1969
Utility companies are going full steam ahead on the construction of nuclear plants, but the threat of thermal pollution may force a cooling-off period
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January 20, 1969

The Nukes Are In Hot Water

Utility companies are going full steam ahead on the construction of nuclear plants, but the threat of thermal pollution may force a cooling-off period

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What literally may become the "hottest" conservation fight in the history of the U.S. has begun. The fight is over nuclear power plants and the damage they can inflict on the natural environment. The opponents are the Atomic Energy Commission and utilities versus aroused fishermen, sailors, swimmers, homeowners and a growing number of scientists. More than 100 nuclear plants are on the drawing boards, and before the fight (or war, to use a more appropriate term) is over, almost every major lake and river and stretches of Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts are likely to become battlegrounds.

There are several objections to nuclear plants, but the immediate uproar is over thermal pollution caused by hot-water discharges from the plants. In order to compete economically with so-called fossil-fueled plants, which are fired by coal, oil or gas, nuclear plants must be of much larger capacity. Despite their size, they are not as efficient as fossil-fueled plants in utilizing the steam heat produced, and they thus require enormous amounts of water to cool the waste heat. In consequence, the plants are being built next to natural bodies of water, thus assuring a continuous flow. The water is passed through a condenser where it becomes anywhere from 11� to 25� Fahrenheit hotter from absorbing the waste heat, and it is then shot back into the body of water from which it came. A one-million-kilowatt nuclear plant, typical of those being planned, requires 850,000 gallons of water a minute for cooling, and in the course of a day this means that almost 1.2 billion gallons of water will be drawn in, heated and spewed out again. That is quite a lot of water. To give an idea, a nuclear plant only half the size now being built at Vernon, Vt. will use more than half the minimal flow of the Connecticut River. With nuclear plants proliferating, estimates are that by 1980 the power industry will require one-sixth of the total freshwater flow from the entire U.S. landmass for cooling. If one sets aside high spring flows, the industry will be using about one-half the flow during the other three seasons of the year.

Thermal pollution from a single nuclear plant can do all sorts of damage to the receiving waters. For instance, thermal pollution decreases the dissolved oxygen content, increases the toxicity of pollutants, makes water turbid (which prevents adequate sunlight penetration), spurs the growth of noxious blue-green algae (the stink of it literally can peel the paint off nearby houses), increases the metabolic rates of fish and other organisms, changes their behavior or interferes with their reproductive cycles, and often kills them outright.

Every species has its own fatal temperature, and fish which are virtually unable to regulate their body heat, live within relatively narrow temperature spans as compared to man or other mammals. Even if a fish is able to survive in water a few degrees below the lethal temperature, it may not be able to thrive because its functions are impaired. In addition to the dangers posed by the hot-water discharge, there are other problems. Small fish or eggs or other organisms can be sucked up the intake pipe and given a fast trip through a condenser, where they are cooked or battered to death. According to a study by Dr. Joseph A. Mihurksy of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, up to 95% of the organisms that passed through a power plant on the Patuxent estuary in Maryland died. A plant near a fish spawning or nursery ground could be deadly. Moreover, in order to keep the pipes and condensers from becoming fouled by barnacles and mussels, plant personnel periodically clean them out with acids, detergents or chemicals such as chlorine. These powerful biocides are then flushed into the receiving waters. In salt or brackish water, heavy metals corroded from the condenser are a problem. Copper concentrations can turn shellfish green and make them unfit for consumption.

Given the nature, threat and extent of thermal pollution, one might expect that the appropriate state or federal agencies concerned with water quality or wildlife would be attempting to cope with the problem by insisting that all nuclear plants be provided with cooling devices (to simplify, a closed-circuit system similar to an automobile radiator would suffice) that would offer no thermal, physical or chemical damage to aquatic life.

But for the most part, this is not the case. The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration in the Department of the Interior cannot even attempt to take any action until after a plant has been built, damage inflicted and a protest mounted. In an effort to remedy this, the FWPCA is now in the midst of a bureaucratic wrangle with the Atomic Energy Commission, which licenses all nuclear plants. The FWPCA wants the AEC to deal with thermal pollution during licensing hearings, but the AEC absolutely refuses to do this on the grounds that it lacks statutory jurisdiction. The AEC maintains that it has jurisdiction over radiological hazards only, and if fish are dying from thermal pollution or if a river or bay is rank from algal blooms caused by hot water, well, it is just too bad, but there is nothing the commission can do. This attitude has seemed unreasonable to many persons, including Senator Edmund Muskie, whose Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution has held extensive hearings on thermal pollution. But the AEC is a power unto itself and not about to be moved. Indeed, it has been said that although Glenn Seaborg, the chairman of the AEC, won a Nobel Prize in chemistry for finding that the impact of neutrons on uranium produces plutonium, he has yet to discover hot water. Alleged lack of jurisdiction aside, the AEC apparently is not interested in preventing thermal pollution because, in the words of Harold Price, its director of regulations, this "would impose a burden on the nuclear that is not imposed on the conventional power plants." Since Price's statement, the Federal Power Commission, which has the say-so over fossil-fueled plants, has taken thermal pollution into account, but the AEC attitude remains the same. If the AEC seems strangely solicitous of the financial investment that power companies would have to make (about 5% to 10% of total construction cost) to stop nuclear plants from frying fish or cooking waterways wholesale, it is worth noting that for years the commission has served as a training ground for utility personnel.

The power companies themselves usually refuse to recognize that thermal pollution exists. In fact, the very term thermal pollution is avoided these days by power officials, who use instead more benign terminology, such as "thermal addition" or "thermal enrichment." As McGregor Smith, chairman of the board of the Florida Power & Light Company, which is planning two reactors on Biscayne Bay, told the Muskie subcommittee with some heat (if that is the word): "The term 'thermal pollution' is so misleading and so injurious to the development of nuclear power that, for the good of the country and the public, it should be discarded. A better, more meaningful and fairer term would be 'thermal effect.' "

On other occasions, power officials have denied that thermal effect/addition/enrichment/pollution will defile waterways. This was the case with Melvin D. Engle, chief mechanical engineer for the Pennsylvania Power & Light Company, who wrote an article, Condensing Water—How Does It Affect the River?, which appeared in the January 1961 issue of Mechanical Engineering. The gist of the article, which dealt with the company's Martins Creek plant, a large, coal-fired plant on the Delaware River, was that "power plants are good neighbors," because a study conducted for the company by the Lehigh University Institute of Research under the direction of Dr. F. J. Trembley revealed "no harmful effects to fish or plant life." A copy of this article was submitted to the Muskie subcommittee last year by Tor Kolflat, a partner in Sargent & Lundy, a Chicago engineering firm which has designed many of the nation's private utility plants, after he testified to substantiate a point about the Delaware. What Kolflat did not produce, as was later made evident by Professor Frank Parker of Vanderbilt University, was another article in the May 1961 issue of Mechanical Engineering, by the Lehigh scientists involved in the Martins Creek study. They charged Engle with misstatements that "contradict research findings as reported to the company, or which present 'facts' not established by the research, or which are misleading because of omission or distortion of parts of the data." For instance, Engle wrote there were "no fish kills" from the hot water discharged, but the Lehigh scientists pointed out, "This contradicts the research findings of fish kills in the heated water of the river as well as in the effluent canal, as given in three different progress reports. These reports included direct observations of fish in the river actually seen dying with symptoms known to be associated with heat death."

Given the intransigence of the AEC and the utilities which the commission is supposed to police in the public interest, it is no wonder that opponents of thermal pollution have become angry. One of the fiercest battles has been fought in the northwest, where six nuclear plants are planned for the Columbia River, the first a one-million-kilowatt nuke to be built by Portland General Electric Company at Rainier, Ore. near the mouth of the river where the fishing is still good. Originally, the Columbia was a surging cold-water river, but in the past 30 years it has become a quiet staircase of dammed warmwater lagoons.

To many fishermen, the nuclear plant at Rainier promised to be the straw that would break the Columbia's back. The Washington State Sportsmen's Council immediately launched a program of resistance to the nuke. Last spring when E. C. Itschner, a vice-president of Portland General Electric, said that the hot water discharged from the nuclear plant would raise the river temperature only three-tenths of 1�, L. H. Mabbott, then president of the council, branded the statement "a fairy tale." Mabbott pointed out that the plant would be on a tidal stretch of the Columbia, and instead of moving down and out the hot water would slosh back and forth, putting a thermal plug near the mouth of the river.

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