Fine Print: Taking a Closer Look at Water Permits for Salem Nuclear Plants

Tom Johnson | September 8, 2015 | Energy & Environment
Environmentalists say cooling towers at Salem could reduce fish kills, but will the state heed their cry?

PSEG Power's Salem nuclear power plant
Few issues have been as divisive for as long as the nuclear units operating on the shores of the Delaware River in Salem County. For proponents, the Salem plants provide a plentiful supply of carbon-free power to help meet electricity needs of homes and businesses in New Jersey. For critics, the units kill billions of fish each year when water is withdrawn to cool the plants.

The issue could come to a head within the next few months when the state Department of Environmental Protection is expected to issue a final water permit for the units. The permits, highly technical and complex, detail the conditions dealing with how much water can be withdrawn from the Delaware and how it is to be discharged back into the estuary.

What’s happened so far: The existing permit for the facility expired in 2006. Since then, the units have continued to be run under the old guidelines. Upset that the agency has not updated the permit, several environmental groups sued the DEP to do so. The agency reached an agreement with the groups, which led to the issuance of a draft five-year permit this summer.

Why critics don’t like the draft permit: For years, environmental groups have pressed the state to order PSEG Power, which operates the facility, to address the fish-kill problem by installing cooling towers, which would greatly reduce the amount of water withdrawn from the estuary, lessening the fish kill. Fish are sucked into the plant along with the water and killed when they are crushed against screens designed to prevent them from entering the facility. Requiring cooling towers, which is opposed by the company, would be extremely expensive, particularly for plants operating for decades.

What the state says about the draft permit: The new permit, if approved as is, would require modifications calling for the units to use modern technology to reduce fish kills. The DEP said the one of the reasons for delays in developing a new permit is that it complies with regulations adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in October 2014. The draft permit does not require the company to install cooling towers, although the DEP will continue to look at the issue.

What happens next: The public comment period on the proposed draft permit was supposed to end last Friday, but the DEP granted another two weeks to those interest in submitting comments. The agency will review and respond to those comments and then make its decision public by publishing it in the New Jersey Register. If adopted as proposed, environmental groups might challenge the decision in the courts.