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Nuclear Power Plant Cooling Systems Harm Aquatic Life

written by: Rose Kivi•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 5/25/2010

Environmental scientists are concerned about the destruction to aquatic life and the ecosystem caused by the cooling systems in many nuclear power plants. Find out how these cooling systems harm aquatic life and the ecosystem.

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    How Cooling Systems Work

    Nuclear power plants need to have a cooling system in place to keep the plant from overheating. Many nuclear power plants use a cooling system called "Once Through Cooling (OTC)". Once through cooling systems use a nearby water resource such as the ocean, river, or lake to cool the nuclear power plant. The OTC system intakes close to one billion gallons of water a day from the ocean, river or lake into the power plant to cool it off and then discharges it back into the ocean, river or lake. Both the intake and discharge of the water harms marine life.

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    Intake of Water

    The intake of water traps aquatic life in the cooling system. The cooling system is installed with a filter to prevent large objects or fish from getting pulled into the system. Some small aquatic life fit through the filters and are killed once they enter the cooling system. Other aquatic life becomes trapped in the filters. The force in which water is pulled into the cooling system, traps larger aquatic life against the filters. Marine mammals that breathe oxygen often drown while trapped against the cooling system filters. The cooling systems trap, harm and kill fish, larvae, plankton and marine mammals. Even endangered species become victims to the once through cooling systems.

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    Discharge of Water

    Water that is discharged back into the ocean, river or lake after cooling off the nuclear power plant is up to twenty-five degrees warmer than it originally was. The discharge of up to one billion gallons a day of heated water damages the ecosystem. The warmer water kills some aquatic life and forces other aquatic life to leave in search of cooler waters. The warmer water also attracts non-native aquatic life to the area. The non-native aquatic life often dies from cold shock when the cooling system is not in use during nuclear power plant maintenance. The force in which the water is discharged back into the environment often kills underwater plant life.

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    Closed Cycle Cooling System

    One alternative way of cooling nuclear power plants is using the "Closed Cycle Cooling" System. The closed cycle cooling system would reuse the same water over and over. Once the water is cycled through the cooling system, it would be sent to a cooling tower where it would cool off and be used again. Some water is lost through evaporation in the closed cooling system, so the cooling system would still have to intake some water. The closed cooling system would cut water usage by up to ninety-five percent and significantly reduce damage to the ecosystem.