Newly Issued Permits for Salem Nuclear Plants Mostly Maintain Status Quo

Environmentalists claim DEP action does little to stop deaths of billions of fish when water’s withdrawn from Delaware River

PSEG Power's Salem nuclear power plant
The state Department of Environmental Protection yesterday issued long-delayed draft water permits for the two Salem nuclear power plants operated by PSEG Power. Critics claim the two facilities kill billions of fish when water is withdrawn from the Delaware River.

Under the terms of the permits, the agency will allow the company, a subsidiary of Newark-based Public Service Enterprise Group, to continue to withdraw large amounts of water from the Delaware estuary for the Salem stations and discharge it back into its waters.

The issue is one of the most contentious and potentially costly facing the energy sector — particularly companies operating nuclear units and coal-fired power plants, both of which rely on massive water withdrawals to cool their facilities when operating.

Fish and other organisms are sucked into the plants along with the water, and are killed when they are impinged on screens designed to prevent them from entering the unit. DEP said state-of-the-art screens used at the units reduce fish morality by 88 percent.

“As I have always said, “Salem is the biggest predator in the Delaware estuary, killing over 3 billion fish a year,’’ said Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the agency, disputed that claim. He said there is no scientific support for environmentalists’ claims that the intake kills billions of fish annually.

The existing permits expired in 2006, but the units have continued to run under their old conditions, which led several environmental groups to sue the state, asking it to update the permits. Under an agreement reached with the groups, it stipulated new permits would be issued by yesterday.

PSEG welcomed the issuance of the draft permit, noting it will allow continued operation of the Salem units, according to statement from Joe Delmar, a spokesman for the subsidiary that runs the nuclear plants.

The draft permits include modifications calling for the units to use more modern technology to prevent fish kills. Hajna said he did not know how much those upgrades would cost.

DEP said the new permit complies with new regulations adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency back in October2014, one of the reasons for the delays in issuing the new permits by the state. In some cases, the permits are more aggressive than the EPA rules, according to DEP.

[related]The agency did not require the units to install cooling towers, which reduce how much water is withdrawn from the estuary — an option favored by some environmental groups, but an expensive alternative, especially for plants that are decades old. Still, under the terms of the permit, the DEP will review that option and other possible ways to reduce the impact of the plant’s operations.

That may not satisfy some critics.

“They didn’t change anything,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, commenting on the draft permit. The third nuclear unit on the site, Hope Creek, does have a cooling tower.

“We will go to court if necessary to protect the river. This plant has been getting away with polluting the river for far too long and we will do the job the DEP should do,’’ he said.

David Pringle, director of Clean Water Action, was more critical, noting Gov. Chris Christie vowed to stop the “fish slaughter’’ at the units in 2009.

“With this draft permit, Gov. Christie has demonstrated why he should not President of the United States—he lies too often even for a politician,’’ Pringle said.