Cooling towers, the unreasonable option

It is unfortunate that in producing electricity the Millstone Power Station causes some environmental damage. Most large-scale energy production sources do. However, most of us have become fond of the convenience provided by electricity and recognize there are trade-offs. In Millstone's case, the nuclear plant unnaturally warms the waters of Niantic Bay and Long Island Sound, taking in massive amounts of water - 1.3 million gallons per minute - to cool the two reactors and returning it at higher temperatures.

This process also causes harm to marine life.

Yet the contention that the government should force the nuclear facility, 43 years after it first began generating power and having met all regulatory requirements in obtaining its licenses, to undergo a massive retrofitting to eliminate the environmental problems is absurd.

At issue is a provision of the Clean Water Act that requires power plants to use "best available technology" to minimize the environmental impact on waterways. About 740 power plants nationally will be affected by how this legal fight plays out.

Environmental groups, including Connecticut Fund for the Environment, Soundkeeper and Riverkeeper, whose advocacy in protecting the environment should be greatly admired, say the best technology is building massive, iconic cooling towers at Millstone instead of using the waters of the Sound.

While this may be true, there must be leeway for common sense and for cost-benefit calculation.

Because of earlier agreements with environmentalists, Dominion, operators of Millstone, have curtailed water use by 40 percent during winter flounder spawning seasons, utilizes new pumps to reduce the amount of water drawn into the plants, and employs fine mesh screens to prevent marine animals from being drawn into the intakes.

Not enough say the environmental groups that demand instead construction of two 50-story concrete cooling towers. Steam emitted by the towers, mixed with the normally moist coastal environment, could provide for a murky existence around the plants. When it comes to sight pollution and quality of life in the community, cooling towers are not the best available technology.

Then there is the cost - a $2.6 billion retrofit by Millstone's estimate. It would also reduce electric output, costing about a $17 million loss in annual revenues. With natural gas forcing down prices in the Northeast, and the region's deregulated markets devaluing Millstone's strengths - reliability and price stability - the plant operates in a difficult competitive environment. Dominion, we suspect, would close Millstone if ordered to install the towers. Of course, some advocating for a tower construction order would welcome that outcome.

And where is the environmental calculus that includes the fact that Millstone - with two operating reactors and one decommissioned plant - produces no greenhouse gases?

The Environmental Protection Agency, expected to render a decision in November, should use its authority to leave this issue to state regulators as part of the water discharge permitting process. This would give the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection the ability to force Dominion to take all reasonable steps to reduce the adverse impacts of the cooling process, perhaps with further technological changes. But we trust the DEEP would not pursue the unreasonable demand for cooling towers. The current discharge permit expires in 2015.

Millstone is a major source of electric generation, a large-scale job creator for the region, and a big taxpayer for Waterford and the state. Should reason prevail, that will continue to be the case.

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