"The Nukes Are In Hot Water"

The following article by Robert Boyle from the January 20, 1969 issue of  Sports Illustrated is presented here in its original and transcribed forms, unedited.  

"The Nukes Are In Hot Water"



Sports Illustrated, January 20, 1969

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.

In September, Dr. Richard W. Van Driel, the new president of the Washington State Sportsmen's Council, denounced Portland General Electric for issuing bids for construction of the Rainier plant "without permit or license of any kind or plans for the protection of aquatic resources." Dr. Van Driel noted, "The public has a right to know what the plans are for disposition of the heat from these huge plants before licenses are issued and before financial commitments are made."

Three months ago Portland General Electric announced it would install a cooling system at its Rainier plant. Says Dr. Van Driel: "We're not relaxing one bit. We've still got to be on guard. We won't let the pressure off."

Three thousand miles to the east a savage fight rages over nuclear plants not far from New York City. Despite localized heavy loads of organic pollution, many northeastern rivers and estuaries still support immense stocks of fish. Knock out one or two key estuaries and goodby fish. For instance, the striped bass spawned in the Hudson River eventually spend part of their adult lives on the north Jersey coast down to Barnegat Bay and in Long Island Sound, administered by the states of New York and Connecticut. Thus, nuclear plants on the Hudson, the Jersey shore or on either side of the Sound may imperil bass, the most sought-after fish in the region, and as of now unchecked nukes are in operation or under consideration in all three areas.

The Hudson, the basic source of supply, is the most endangered, and it offers the classic case in nuclear fish kills to prove the point. In the fall of 1962 a relatively tiny nuclear plant (265,000 kilowatts) began operation at Indian Point, a former park, on the river 40 miles above the Battery. This Consolidated Edison Company plant fronts on important grounds for both young stripers hatched up-river and for mature bass that migrate from the coast to spend the winter before spawning in the spring. During the first six months of operation, the Indian Point plant killed tons upon tons of fish.

Although an attorney for Con Ed later admitted to a congressional committee investigating the kill that "the Indian Point thing was bad, there is no question about it," the company was not required to pay any indemnity–the standard fine for a private citizen is $27.50 or more for each fish–and soon applied to the AEC for a license to build a larger plant next door to the first. This plant will be completed next year, and a third one next to the others is scheduled for operation in 1971. When all three units are in operation, they will shoot back 2.1 million gallons of water a minute into the Hudson at a temperature 16.4 ° hotter than the river. Con Ed also has plans for a fourth unit near Indian Point, and last spring the company announced it was going to put more nukes at unspoiled Montrose Point two miles south of Indian Point. This came as a surprise to the Catholic Kolping Society, which owns a 52-acre estate there and had no idea of selling, even though the Con Ed blueprint called for this land to serve as the heart of the project. It probably also came as a surprise to Chairman Charles Luce, who, only a month earlier, had written a stockholder that Con Ed could not put another nuke on the river, because it would "heat the waters of the Hudson too much." The Kolping Society has since refused offers from Con Ed to pack up and get out, and Con Ed has threatened to institute condemnation proceedings.

Besides Indian and Montrose Points, other nukes are rumored for this stretch of the Hudson, which would boost the total number to eight or nine, easily the greatest single concentration of plants in the world.

When directors of the Hudson River Fishermen's Association met with Con Ed officials last May to point out that hot-water discharges from proposed nuclear plants would violate state standards for tidal saltwater, Arthur Pearson, a senior engineer for Con Ed, said that the utility was going to get the state to classify the lower Hudson as a freshwater stream. This was apparently too much even for state officials, who now are simply trying to rejigger temperature standards to benefit all the utilities.

Long Island Sound is also in for a rash of plants. The United Illuminating Company of Bridgeport has a plant at Millstone Point, Conn. that will begin operation in a year, while the Connecticut Yankee nuke at Haddam Neck, 20 miles up the Connecticut River from the Sound, has been operating since 1967. Last Aug. 8, The Middletown (Conn.) Press reported that a party of canoeists going down the Connecticut had taken temperatures of 97 ° near the plant while 1,000 yards upstream the water temperature was only 72 °.

The United Illuminating Company plans a huge nuke in Westport, Conn, on wild Cockenoe Island, a short distance offshore from the Westport town beach and the largest public beach in Norwalk. United Illuminating does not even serve the Westport-Norwalk area, and the company was not very illuminating about purchasing the island, keeping its ownership secret for more than a year. Public outcry has induced State Representative Edwin Green of Westport to introduce a bill in the state assembly, which, if passed, will amend the present law and give a town's power of condemnation priority over a utility company's right of eminent domain.

On the other side of the Sound, Long Island Lighting Company is planning two nukes at Shoreham, and the company is also seeking to acquire a site on Lloyd Neck, where a local organization, the Lloyd Harbor Study Group, composed largely of energetic housewives, is ready to do battle. On the western end of the Sound, Con Edison recently acquired David's Island from the city of New Rochelle. Four one-million-kilowatt reactors are to go there with no cooling devices, because, as a Con Ed executive erroneously says, "the water in Long Island Sound is changed daily by tides." The city fathers are immensely proud of the deal because of the tax revenues they claim New Rochelle will reap, but opposition has developed in the form of two new organizations, Citizens for a Second Look and the Long Island Sound Association, which Dom Pirone, who fishes for striped bass in both the Hudson and the Sound, helped to organize. The Long Island Sound Association is not only attempting to coordinate all nuclear opposition on the Sound but has joined forces with the Hudson River Fishermen's Association and other groups outside the area, including the Citizens Committee to Save Cayuga Lake in upstate New York.

The Cayuga Lake fight is interesting because it pits a utility, the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation, not against housewives, however energetic they may be, but against a bristling platoon of Cornell faculty. The controversy started last winter when a local paper reported that the utility company was planning to put a nuke to be called the Bell Station on the east shore of Cayuga, 16 miles north of Ithaca. The Bell Station was to be an 830,000-kilowatt plant, and to cool the condenser, the plant would take in and shoot back 750 million gallons of water a day 25 ° hotter than the bottom temperature of the lake. Dean Arnold, a research fellow in biology at Cornell, called the company to ask for more information, and he was told, "We are not in the habit of discussing our plans with the public." That was enough to fuel indignation at Cornell.

The Citizens Committee to Save Cayuga was formed and responded in a number of ways. Most importantly perhaps, it had 17 Cornell scientists, led by Dr. A. W. Eipper, prepare a paper to state the case against the plant. The paper, "Thermal Pollution of Cayuga Lake by a Proposed Power Plant," points out that Cayuga, like the other four Finger Lakes, is very deep and cold. From top to bottom, it is stratified into warm and cold layers during the summer and mixes throughout the winter when it turns over. During the turnover, dissolved oxygen in the upper layer is imparted to the colder bottom layer, and the bottom-dwelling species, such as lake trout, are able to live only because of this once-a-year replenishment of oxygen. The Bell nuke, however, would draw cold water from 100 feet below lake level, heat it and then discharge it at the surface. This would be ecologically disastrous to the life forms naturally acclimated to Cayuga. For one, it would upset the oxygen mixing cycle so that the lake trout would be hard put to survive, and for another it probably would turn Cayuga into a floating salad bowl of weeds and algae. In sucking up water from near the bottom, the plant would ingest nutrients that are inert from lack of sunlight. But spewed out and released into the upper layers, these nutrients–nitrates and phosphates–would become active fertilizers for plant growth. Four towns use the lake for drinking water, and blue-green algae, which imparts a disgusting taste to water, could only be eliminated at great cost. If need be, the committee is preparing to go to court to stop the utility from fouling the lake.

Any court case brought in New York State to prevent a utility from thermally polluting waters is likely to prompt the state itself to appear on the side of the polluter. The present state administration is nuclear happy, more so than any other state in the Union. A resident of Washington State who objects to thermal pollution only has to do battle against a weak state water-pollution agency and the AEC; but a New Yorker is forced to fight both the AEC and the State Atomic and Space Development Authority, a newly created bureaucracy that has so much muscle it makes the AEC look like a 97-pound weakling. This authority came into powerful existence last May when Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, a firm believer in nukes for reasons not yet clear, pushed a bill through the closing session of the state legislature. The governor is an overwhelming figure in the state, not only by virtue of his office, but because he is the major contributor to state election campaigns, and he underwrites individual candidates as well. When Rockefeller says a bill is a must, he gets a quick response. No public hearings were held on the bill; indeed, it was just about impossible for an outsider to find a copy. The bill went through in record time; some legislators have since privately admitted that they did not even bother to read its provisions. Briefly, the bill gives the atomic authority immense powers and specifically charges it with "the maximum development and use of atomic energy...." It is to have enormous sums of money at its command to subsidize both public and private plants. It has the power to condemn any lands in the state. Moreover, the authority is not subject to any of the state public service or conservation laws. In the language of the bill, all such laws are "deemed to be superseded," and should any provision of these laws seem to be in conflict with the authority this provision shall be "deemed to be superseded, modified or repealed as the case may require."

As a result of the power industry's refusal to recognize thermal pollution, a number of persons who were originally willing to live with nuclear power have begun to raise other questions. And with good reason. For instance, David Lilienthal, the first chairman of the AEC, expressed grave reservations in his book, Change, Hope, and the Bomb, about the potential hazards posed by nuclear plants. Then there is the Scientists' Institute for Public Information, which has shown serious concern for insufficient safeguards and the emission of pollutants during normal plant operation. SIPI's membership includes some of the most distinguished and respected names in science. The purpose of SIPI, which has its headquarters in Manhattan, is to provide scientific information to the lay citizen who is interested in nuclear energy and environmental contamination. SIPI publishes a magazine, Scientist and Citizen, where articles have dealt with the release of various radioactive pollutants such as Krypton 85 and Iodine 131 from nuclear plants, and the effect such emissions may have, say, on the human body. Indeed, the whole frightening problem posed by nuclear plants is succinctly dealt with in a new book, The Careless Atom, by Sheldon No-vick, associate editor of Scientist and Citizen. Last September, several members of SIPI, including Dr. Barry Commoner, director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Washington University, appeared at a conference at Stratton Mountain, Vt., sponsored by The Conservation Society of Southern Vermont, on the subject of nuclear-power and the environment. The Federal Power Commission, the Fish and Wildlife Service and state and local agencies sent representatives to speak at this dispassionate, coolly clinical forum, but the AEC, which had been invited to attend, refused.

All the protests against the nukes have not been without effect on the federal level. Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts plans to reintroduce a bill in the current session of the Senate which would call for a two-year moratorium on nuclear plant construction. During this period, siting studies would be conducted, a thoughtful overall policy made on power requirements and hazards eliminated. Representative Richard Ottinger of New York will introduce a similar measure in the House.

Curiously, the power industry couldn't seem to care less. It's still full steam ahead. A recent article in Nuclear News, a trade publication, made a joke out of thermal pollution. A supposed ecologist was quoted as saying, "Who says a shift in wildlife balance is bad? If an accidental 5 ° rise will kill salmon in the Columbia, why not a 20 ° rise–on purpose–to create an Amazonlike home for species of greater importance? Angelfish bring far more per pound than salmon. What sportsman would settle for trout when he could catch piranha?"

Quips like this do not prompt laugh-ins by fishermen or other concerned citizens, but it is surprising that in its search for suitable tropical fish to replace salmon Nuclear News did not mention the leaf fish (Monocirrhus polyacanthus), which will eat only living fish and demands seven meals a day. As the late A. J. Liebling wrote more than 30 years ago after observing the leaf fish in the New York Aquarium, "It has a profile like a public utility executive and an appetite to match."


Powering the Hudson
"The Nukes Are In Hot Water"