For a newly hatched striped bass in the Hudson River, a clutch of trout eggs in Lake Michigan or a baby salmon in San Francisco Bay, drifting a little too close to a power plant can mean a quick and turbulent death.
Sucked in with enormous volumes of water, battered against the sides of pipes and heated by steam, the small fry of the aquatic world are being sacrificed in large numbers each year to the cooling systems of power plants around the country.
Environmentalists say the nation's power plants are needlessly killing fish and fish eggs with their cooling systems, but energy-industry officials say opponents of nuclear power are exaggerating the losses.
The issue is affecting the debate over the future of a nuclear plant in the suburbs north of New York City, and the facilities and environmentalists are closely watching the outcome here to see how to proceed in other cities around the country. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this term in a lawsuit related to the matter.
The issue's scope is tremendous. More than 1,000 power plants and factories around the country use water from rivers, lakes, oceans and creeks as a coolant. At Indian Point plant in New York, the two reactors can pull in 1.7 million gallons of water per minute. Nineteen plants on or near the California coast use 16.3 billion gallons of sea water every day.
Most of the casualties are just fish eggs, and for many species, it takes thousands of eggs to result in one adult fish. The U.S. Environmental Protection Administration uses various formulas and says the number of eggs and larvae killed each year at the nation's large power plants would have grown into 1.5 billion year-old fish, counting only species valuable for commercial or recreational fishing.
The EPA says it also tracks other species of fish, and its overall figure for year-old-equivalent fish lost in power-plant cooling systems is 3.5 billion per year.
Activists: Food web weakened
Environmentalists note that even fish that die before maturity contribute to the ecosystem as food for larger fish and birds, and as predators themselves on smaller organisms. But once they've gone through the power plant, they become decomposing detritus on the river bottom and have moved from the top to the bottom of the food chain, said Reed Super, an environmental lawyer specializing in the federal Clean Water Act.
"This is a really significant ongoing harm to our marine ecosystem," adds Angela Haren, program director for the California Coastkeeper Alliance in San Francisco.
Technology has long existed that might reduce the fish kill by 90 percent or more. Cooling towers allow a power plant to recycle the water rather than continuously pump it in. New power plants are required to use cooling towers, but most existing plants resist any push to convert, citing the huge cost and claiming that most fish eggs and larvae are doomed anyway.
"We're not killing grown fish," says Jerry Nappi, spokesman for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, owner of Indian Point. "If we were killing billions of grown fish you'd be able to walk across the Hudson on their backs."
And Nappi says the fish population in the Hudson is stable, despite a recent study commissioned by Indian Point opponents that said 10 of 13 species were declining.
Company: Tech fix costs $1.5 billion
He also says an insistence on cooling towers could lead to Indian Point's closing and a sudden power deficit in the New York metropolitan area.
"What you're really talking about is a $1.5 billion hit on the company, and then it becomes an economic decision whether they want to stay here," he says. He believes talk of cooling towers is "a backdoor attempt by some to shut down Indian Point."
A recent ruling dealt at least a small blow to Entergy's efforts. The state Department of Environmental Protection, which is pushing for cooling towers, said the simple fact that so many fish eggs are destroyed each year at Indian Point is proof of an environmental impact, and Entergy can no longer maintain that it's not adversely affecting the river.
There's still months of argument ahead, but the ruling could be influential.
"We'll be very interested to see how that comes out," says Katie Nekola, an attorney for Clean Wisconsin, which failed to force cooling towers at the Oak Creek plant on Lake Michigan but won a $105 million settlement.
Screens used at Indian Point
State agencies in California also are working on new regulations that should limit the numbers of fish killed, in the Pacific Ocean and other bodies of water.
According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, nuclear plants drink from other familiar bodies of water as the Mississippi River, Chesapeake Bay, Lake Michigan, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Oceans. Water used for cooling does not become radioactive.
Most plants without cooling towers use a system in which water is continuously pumped in, used for cooling, and returned.
Various types of barriers are used to keep adult fish out of the system; Indian Point uses screens with holes measuring a quarter-inch by a half-inch.
However, fish that are blocked by the screen can become caught on the screen by the force of the water intake. To rescue them, the screens rotate, and as they come out of the water a spray of water knocks the impinged fish into a trough, which is directed back to the river.
Nets can still mangle fish
A California state report says 9 million fish are caught on nets there every year. Even turtles, seals and sea lions are occasionally caught. Environmentalists believe many fish and other creatures are killed in this process, or are injured and die later.
"When you hit a deer in your car, just because it gets up and runs away doesn't mean it's not going to die," Haren said.
But Ed Keating, environmental manager at the nuclear subsidiary of Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., said that probably only 1 percent of the fish caught get killed on the screens. Dara Gray, environmental supervisor at Indian Point, says there's no reason to believe that any fish are injured or killed by being caught on the screen.
In the process known as closed-cycle cooling, used mostly in newer plants, the number of fish and eggs sucked in or impinged is sharply reduced because cooling towers use so much less water. Even if a power plant draws its cooling water from a river, it uses that water over and over again and rarely needs to replenish.
Some plants with cooling towers don't have to worry about fish at all. PSEG Fossil has plants in New Jersey that now take treated wastewater from sewage plants.