Adam Augello, CCBW’s intern, writes about the effects of thermal pollution and the cooling system on the ecosystem – primarily fish – in Cape Cod Bay.
Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is located in one of the most important habitats in the world. Coastal zones, such as those located around Cape Cod Bay, have some of the highest levels of biological productivity in the world, and now produce about 10% of the world’s fish harvest[i]. It is within this context that Pilgrim currently runs its operations, and in its 40 year history has developed an interesting relationship with the bay.
In order to cool its reactor at the same time as it generates steam for electricity, Pilgrim takes in up to 510 million gallons of water a day from Cape Cod Bay. The cooling water, in the process of passing through the reactor, is heated up before being returning to the bay[ii]. Because of Pilgrim’s day-to-day operations, a thermal plume of up to 5 square miles containing water at least 2⁰F hotter than the ambient waters, has developed in Cape Cod Bay[iii].
Temperature changes of as little as 2⁰F will trigger responses in marine organisms of either avoidance or attraction[iv]. This stratification of the food web poses a significant problem in itself. However, often times the presence of food will override thermal preferences and cause fish that would normally avoid a thermal plume to venture into waters that could be lethal[v]. Once inside a thermal plume for a short period of time, it becomes very difficult for the fish to leave because their bodies become acclimated to the warmer temperature, which depletes their energy level and swimming endurance[vi]. Then when the power plant suddenly goes offline for maintenance, which happened six times from 2011 to January 2013, virtually all trapped adult fish as well as free-floating eggs, larvae, and juveniles who happen to be passing through the plume can be killed from cold shock[vii].
Why then is Pilgrim allowed to kill these species en mass in its day-to-day operations? When you take into account the rippling effect the destruction of zooplankton and fish stocks has on the ecosystem of Cape Cod Bay, Pilgrim’s actions reach far beyond the ill-defined boundaries of the thermal plume. There is also concern that the development and survival of fish eggs and larvae, as well as the spawning success and migration patterns of the adult fish, may be affected by the increase in temperature[x].
It is with these considerations in mind that the impact of Pilgrim’s thermal discharge could be more than of “small significance” as the NRC determined in its renewal of Pilgrim’s operating license in 2012[xi]. That determination was based upon flawed, insufficient, and antiquated data which was collected mostly in the 1970s, and which couldn’t account for new variables such as climate change and declining fish stocks.
Therefore, Cape Cod Bay Watch is advocating for Entergy to spend some money to update its cooling system so that our bay can stop being used as a dumping ground, and instead fully realize its ecological potential.