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Industry to EPA: Cooling Intake Rule Could Lead to Nuclear Plant Closures

Feb. 4, 2014—The heads of five U.S. nuclear energy providers have told the Environmental Protection Agency that if its revised rule to protect aquatic species from power plant cooling water intake systems is not carefully crafted, the ensuing premature closures of nuclear energy facilities would significantly impact the administration’s greenhouse gas emissions goals.

A Jan. 24 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy from the CEOs of Exelon, PG&E, Dominion, PSEG and NextEra warns of other consequences of nuclear plant retirements, including a diminished electricity supply, reduced grid stability and soaring electricity prices.

EPA has been working to finalize its proposed revision to Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act. The proposed rule requires that thermal power plant operators use the “best technology available” to minimize fish becoming trapped on the screens of cooling water intake structures (impingement) or being circulated through the plants’ cooling systems (entrainment).

When EPA issued its proposed rule in March 2011, it received tens of thousands of comments from interested parties who share the nuclear energy industry’s concerns about the potential economic impact on consumers from unintended consequences that would result from the regulation.

The rule was due to be finalized last year, but an extension of the deadline was granted for a review by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service of the rule’s possible impact on endangered species.

The industry letter recommends that because the proposed rule already contains measures to minimize the impingement and entrainment of marine species at cooling intake structures, the review should conclude that the rule is “not likely to adversely affect threated and endangered species.” The CEOs also note that Endangered Species Act requirements have already been evaluated and met at all existing nuclear energy facilities.

By contrast, the letter says, if EPA insists on an overly broad and onerous new interpretation of the Endangered Species Act, power plant owners could be required to install cooling towers at existing facilities “even if there is no evidence that the facility is causing an adverse impact.”

The cost of doing that would be prohibitive in both competitive and regulated markets, the letter says, citing a 2011 conclusion by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. that most nuclear plants forced to install cooling towers would likely retire instead and that between 25 gigawatts and 39 gigawatts of installed capacity are vulnerable.

In the letter, Exelon used Energy Information Agency data to demonstrate graphically that if 25 percent of operating U.S. nuclear reactors were to retire by 2020, more than half of the Obama administration’s greenhouse gas reduction goals would be lost.