CORTLANDT, N.Y. – The reclassification of Atlantic sturgeon as an endangered species highlights an ongoing debate about the best technology to mitigate adverse effects of Indian Point Nuclear Power Plants on marine wildlife. State and federal agencies are in hearings with Entergy, owner of the Buchanan power plants, on whether wedge wire screens or cooling towers are the best way to update the plant's cooling system.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will likely review an advisory opinion written for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in conjunction with the 20-year license extension of the Buchanan power plants because of the reclassification of Atlantic sturgeon as endangered.
Indian Point draws up to 2.5 billion gallons of Hudson River water each day, by far the largest use of Hudson River water in the state. Current screens used on uptake systems are referred to as “travelling” screens, and have holes between a quarter and half-inch wide. The screens protect fish as small as a pinky finger, according to Indian Point officials.
Peekskill’s nearby RESCO waste-to-energy facility uses wedge-wire screens, but draws only about 55 million gallons of Hudson River water daily, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC).
The intake systems have been a source of controversy since NYSDEC denied Entergy a Water Quality Certificate in 2010, an operating permit required by the federal Clean Water Act. NYSDEC cited Entergy's failure to retrofit the plants with closed cycle cooling towers as part of the denial, Entergy is currently appealing the ruling.
Indian Point’s aversion to close cycle cooling towers has a history nearly as long as the plant. Entergy argues that cooling towers would cost up to $1 billion, would be the size of Yankee Stadium, and would emit particulate matter into an area the Environmental Protection Agency describes as non-compliant with air quality standards. The emissions to which officials refer would be composed of essentially sodium chloride, or table salt.
Indian Point Units 2 and 3 were issued 40-year licenses in September 1973 and December 1975. Soon after, the Atomic Energy Commission – predecessor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – amended the 40-year licenses “to include requirements for the installation and operation of wet closed-cycle cooling systems at the facilities,” according to NOAA.
Con Edison, then-owners of Indian Point, entered adjudication in 1977 to have the requirements amended. The state and the company exited the adjudication process with the Hudson River Settlement Agreement. The agreement required Con Edison to create a $12 million endowment for research on how to best mitigate impact on marine wildlife by power plants.
According to the NOAA's opinion, the agreement was designed so, "the department could determine, and parties could agree upon, the best technology available to minimize adverse environmental impact on aquatic organisms in the Hudson River." The agreement essentially settled the matter for another 33 years, until the NYSDEC refused to issue a Water Quality Certificate, citing that closed cycle cooling towers were never installed.
Cooling towers, according to the NOAA opinion, would reduce Hudson River water intake by up to 95 percent. Entergy appealed NYSDEC’s determination that closed cycle cooling towers were the “best technology available” to ensure minimal impact on river organisms, and instead proposed a series of cylindrical wedge-wire screens.
Hearings between Entergy and the NYSDEC are ongoing. The classification of Atlantic sturgeon as endangered will likely affect other industrial projects slated for the Hudson River, including the rebuilding of the Tappan Zee Bridge, and a proposed desalination plant in Rockland County’s Haverstraw Bay.