The twin Salem nuclear power plants kill more than 3 billion fish each year that are carried into the plants’ cooling systems and get pumped back into the Delaware River.
Most that die — herring, weakfish, croaker, white perch, striped bass and bay anchovy — are babies that had long odds of surviving to adulthood in the vast food chain of the Delaware Bay.
For years the state has let the plant’s owner, PSEG Nuclear, create new fish habitat to make up for the plants’ thirst, quenched by as many as 3.2 billion gallons per day from the river about 50 miles north of Cape May.
A third nuclear power plant operated by PSEG, Hope Creek, has a cooling tower that minimizes the effect on fish stocks.
The question now is whether the state will continue to let the Salem plants operate as they have or, as in the case of the Oyster Creek Generating Station, take a harder line.
Oyster Creek, on the opposite side of the state in Lacey Township, has a similar cooling system — called once-through — that kills billions of fish each year. In 2009, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection refused to renew the plant’s water permit, known as NJPDES for New Jersey Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.
After a year of negotiation, Oyster Creek’s owner, Exelon Corp., in December agreed to shut down the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant in 2019, even though it has a permit to operate through 2029. In return, the state will let the plant continue to cool its reactor by drawing billions of gallons of water from the Barnegat Bay.
State officials have similar concerns about the Salem plants.
“The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife continues to be concerned with the issue of impacts to the eggs, larval forms, juveniles and adults of the fish, shellfish and other invertebrate species which exist in the Delaware River Estuary,” the DEP wrote to the NRC in December.
PSEG Nuclear applied to build New Jersey’s fifth nuclear power plant in Salem County on Artificial Island in Lower Alloways Creek Township. Federal law requires all new plants in the United States to have cooling towers.
The state submitted papers to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the environmental impact of the proposed plant. In the documents, the state sided with PSEG in its bid to build a new plant, saying the company’s wetlands work would compensate for any fish the new plant might kill.
“It’s a tough decision to make,” said Stan Gorski, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“We have growing needs for electricity. It’s a call between the adverse effects of the plants’ continued operation and the growing needs of electricity,” he said.
The federal agency also questions the effect coastal power plants such as Salem have on fish stocks. The agency has long disputed the NRC’s conclusion that power plants have a negligible effect on fish populations.
“We sent the NRC some questions. We recommended closed-cycle cooling,” said Gorski, the field offices supervisor for the agency’s Habitat Conservation Division.
“We’ve been pushing for closed-cycle cooling since the 1970s. They disagree with us.”
Gorski said the question is whether the plants’ consumption of billions of baby fish and shellfish has a significant effect on the population. It’s not an easy question to answer, he said.
“Under ideal circumstances, a male and female species of a fish will produce enough young to get to the point of having two spawning adults,” he said.
But fish face threats from predation, pollution, fishing, disease and even bad weather, Gorski said.
“At the turn of the 20th century, there was a huge die-off of tilefish. In the 1970s, we had a low-oxygen situation in the Mid-Atlantic that killed a lot of fish and invertebrates,” he said. “Theoretically, you could have a lot of manmade causes for fish mortality that is not related to the plants.”
PSEG spokesman Joseph Delmar said the company’s efforts to restore wetlands have provided new nurseries for countless fish that balance the food chain in favor of the power plant.
“Data show that fish populations have been stable and steady since the power plants were built,” he said. “Based on that data, there is no adverse impact on aquatic life.”
And unlike Oyster Creek, which circulates vast amounts of the Barnegat Bay each day, the Salem plants draw less than 1 percent of the Delaware River’s daily flow, Delmar said.
“The difference is we’re dealing with a significantly larger body of water,” he said.
Environmental groups such as the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary say the company’s marsh projects have been hugely successful in restoring habitat on 20,000 acres of Delaware bayshore.
“They have been a leader in terms of wetlands restoration,” the group’s executive director, Jennifer Adkins, said. “They did a tremendous amount of wetlands work.”
Fishermen have known for decades that nuclear plants kill lots of fish. But there have not been widespread complaints from fishing groups, said Nils Stolpe, a spokesman for the Garden State Seafood Association.
“It’s been a background issue. It pops up occasionally when a fish species that spends a lot of spawning time in the estuary gets in dire straits,” he said.
For example, fishing groups blamed power plants off Long Island Sound for a drop in winter flounder stocks, he said.
“It’s not just nuclear power plants but conventional coal-fired or oil-fired plants as well,” Stolpe said. “Any power plant that has once-through cooling that takes water out of the environment and dumps it back into the bay.”
Even now it’s difficult for scientists to determine what overall effect a single power plant has on fish stocks, Stolpe said. Most fish and shellfish larvae have long odds of reaching adulthood in the food chain anyway despite the billions of eggs laid.
“Nobody knows. It’s impossible to answer the question,” Stolpe said. “If you’re removing 1 percent or 10 percent of the babies, it will have an effect on the adults. But what effect is really difficult to estimate.”
Contact Michael Miller: