BUCHANAN, New York––Debuting at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and rapidly advancing to the 2015 Tribecca Film Festival, the Ivy Meerpool documentary Indian Point features environmental journalist Roger Witherspoon and his wife, anti-nuclear power activist Marilyn Elie; former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Gregory Jaczko, who was forced to resign after demanding safety improvements from the U.S. nuclear power industry following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan; and a large endangered Atlantic sturgeon captured in the Hudson River near the Indian Point reactor complex and measured by Riverkeeper scientists before being released to swim away.
Indian Point reactor unit #1, built in 1962, was taken offline on Halloween 1974, never to be started again, because the emergency core cooling system did not meet regulatory requirements.
Indian Point reactor units #2 and #3, built in 1974 and 1976, respectively, have since September 28, 2013 generated electricity under a “period of extended operation” permit while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decides whether to renew their licenses for another 20 years.
Big fish & small
The 93-minute Indian Point documentary thoroughly examines the public safety, economic, political, and environmental issues surrounding the protracted decision-making process. But as the narrator points out, after interviewing and profiling all of the “big fish” who have something to say about how much of what goes into the spent fuel containment pond, the fate of the Indian Point Energy Center might ultimately be determined by fish fry and fingerlings.
Acting on behalf of at least 2.1 billion sentient beings per year who are pureed or boiled alive, to little public notice, the Environmental Protection Agency on May 19, 2014 issued final rules for water use in the cooling systems of electrical generating stations.
The new rules apply to 1,065 cooling structures at 544 generating stations, most of them powered by coal or nuclear reactors.
“If you have cooling water intakes you have to look at the impact on aquatic life in local waterways and take steps to minimize that impact,” said EPA acting assistant administrator for water Nancy Stoner.
Adopted after nearly 20 years of lawsuits and lobbying, the new rules are meant to protect fish, vernal shrimp, crabs, crayfish, and other species of importance to wildlife food chains.
Humane concerns not mentioned
Humane concerns on behalf of these species have barely been raised during the two decades of intensive debate, but are significant. The EPA drafted the initial proposal to regulate cooling water intakes years before publication of recent studies demonstrating the previously much disputed capacity of fish and crustaceans to feel pain.
Generating station management are permitted to choose among seven options for reducing harm to fish and crustaceans, according to the EPA statement––but none of those options are likely to be both satisfactory to the EPA and economically attractive to Entergy, the utility company that owns Indian Point.
“The EPA rule is one of a string of measures that will add costs to run power plants,” commented Mark Drajem of Bloomberg News, “especially those using coal. That combination of rules, critics say, could drive up electricity costs and force older plants out of business.”
Shutdown not inevitable
At the same time, the new EPA rules do not make an Indian Point shutdown inevitable. Riverkeeper attorney Reed Super has argued that the new rules “will perpetuate the unacceptable status quo that has allowed antiquated plants to withdraw nearly 100 trillion gallons of fresh and sea water each year, and indiscriminately kill fish and wildlife.”
Headed by Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Riverkeeper had repeatedly filed lawsuits invoking the 1972 Clean Water Act to try to compel the EPA to finalize the long-delayed water intake rules.
Riverkeeper in April 2010 lost a round when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to order the EPA to require the Indian Point nuclear reactors to use a closed cooling system, which would not kill aquatic life. But the EPA in November 2010 settled further Riverkeeper litigation by agreeing to introduce the newly issued rules by the end of March 2011––a deadline missed by more than three full years. The delay particularly benefitted Entergy and the Indian Point complex.
“If you catch undersized fish…”
Pointed out Indian Point documentary star Witherspoon at his Energy Matters investigative news blog site, http://spoonsenergymatters.wordpress.com/, “In the last couple of years, the EPA has watered down the damage done by power plants to the aquatic environment. They used to say the toll was two trillion fish annually. Then, two years ago, they dropped it to two billion. When I asked why, they would not say.
“The Indian Point plants alone kill more than two billion juvenile and adult fish annually,” Witherspoon said. “The hatchlings––those under half an inch in diameter––get sucked in through their screens, and cooked. They kill 300 billion of these annually,” according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission data.
“In determining that the overall impact on essential fish habitat [at Indian Point] is ‘small to moderate,'” Witherspoon wrote, “the agency noted approvingly that new screens installed in front of the 40-foot-wide intake pipes in 1984 had reduced the destruction of baby fish between 1984 and 1991 by 187 billion per year,” from nearly 500 billion per year previously.
Noted Witherspoon, “In most states, if you catch undersized fish you would be fined. But the Office of Management & Budget only sees value in the end product [of energy production] and the EPA has applied this rationale when examining the thermal impact of cooling systems.”