N-Plant Is Neither Ogre nor Angel to Ocean, Study Finds

Times Staff Writer

A 15-year study of the San Onofre nuclear power station's effects on the ocean, released Wednesday, concludes that the plant has done some damage to the marine environment around the plant, but that it is not the full-blown ecological disaster predicted by environmentalists.

The results of the $46-million study, along with a series of recommendations to mitigate the environmental harm, were turned over this week to the California Coastal Commission. The study was conducted by the Marine Review Committee, a three-man team of biologists appointed by the Coastal Commission in 1974 to provide an independent scientific review of the plant's impact.

The committee was formed after a series of hearings on whether the plant should be allowed to expand from one reactor to three. At the time, environmental groups predicted that the nuclear plant would wipe out the plankton population and destroy sea life, creating a virtual ocean-floor desert off the coast of northern San Diego County.

20 Tons of Fish Killed

The construction permit for the two reactors was granted, but Southern California Edison Co., the operator of the plant, was ordered to pay for a long-term study of the environment.

Among the findings of the Marine Review Committee was that the power plant kills about 20 tons of fish a year as they are sucked into the generator's intake pipes, which draw seawater in to cool the reactors.

The study also concluded that the plume of water discharged from the plant tends to stir up the sediment on the ocean floor and cut the level of natural light on the bottom, sometimes as much as 16%. Diminished light harms the fish population and damages offshore kelp beds and the invertebrate sea creatures that live in the kelp.

The report concluded that the plankton on the ocean floor and certain bottom-dwelling fish and crabs were not hurt by the plant's operations.

The report recommends a number of measures that could be taken to reduce the damage to the marine environment, including the construction of artificial reefs, restoration of wetlands, reducing the flow of water taken in for cooling and upgrading the plant's system for keeping fish out of the intake pipes.

According to the report, construction of an artificial reef would cut down on the loss of fish and kelp by placing a physical barrier around the plant. The report also recommends scheduling operation of the plant to avoid fish-hatching periods.

Implementation of all the recommendations could effectively counter any negative effect the power plant now has on the marine environment, the report concluded.

It would cost about $30 million to follow all the suggestions made in the report, according to Byron J. Mechalas, manager of environmental research for Southern California Edison and one of the three scientists on the review committee.

The Coastal Commission members will discuss the report at their November meeting and vote in December or January on which recommendations to follow, said Susan Hansch, manager of the Energy and Ocean Resources Unit of the Coastal Commission.

Hansch said the power plant's operating permit was issued on the condition that it make changes in the cooling system to mitigate the environmental impact, if required by the commission. The changes would be made at Southern California Edison's expense, though the company may appeal any decision through an arbitration panel set up by the commission, Hansch said.

Despite the seemingly clear conclusions presented in the report, two of the scientists who contributed to the study differed widely in their personal views of the study's accomplishments.

Mechalas, the Edison scientist, downplayed the seriousness of the report's findings and said he didn't believe any of the recommended mitigation measures were absolutely necessary. "The disaster is not there, it didn't happen, and it cost us nearly $50 million to find it out," said Mechalas. "So how much more are you willing to pay for a kelp bed that could have been?"

Mechalas said the study was one of the most thorough studies ever conducted of the effects of a nuclear generating plant on the marine environment, but added that he disagreed with some of the interpretations of the test results. For instance, he said, the estimate of potential fish loss was based on the fact that the power plant's intake tubes take in billions of fish eggs. "The hypothesis is that many of these would grow up to be adult fish," Mechalas said. But, he said, many of the adult fish "would have been lost anyway" to commercial fishermen, sea lions or other natural predators.

"Twenty tons is a real loss," Mechalas acknowledged, but he said the benefits of the plant to Southern California outweigh that loss.

Mechalas also noted that environmentalists' concerns about the potential for radioactivity in the water from the plant proved to be unfounded. "We found no elevation of radioactivity or heavy metals," he said.

Rimmon C. Fay of the Pacific Biomarine Laboratory, who was appointed to the review committee to represent the interests of environmentalists, said he personally disagreed with some of the study's conclusions. The marine environment "has suffered grievously from the operation of the power plant," he said Wednesday from his office in Venice. "I think, if anything, all the estimates of damage are very conservative.

Foresees Lawsuits Against Coastal Commission

"There's certainly no question that the plant sucks in and kills a lot of marine life," he said. "It's just undeniable." Fay said 90% of the negative effects could be turned around with the construction of cooling towers similar to the ones used at the Rancho Seco and Three Mile Island nuclear power plants, but acknowledged that his opinion was not shared by his two colleagues on the review committee.

Fay, who acknowledges having a strong anti-nuclear bias, said he believes the study will eventually result in lawsuits against the Coastal Commission. "If they're convinced to go to cooling towers, Southern California Edison could sue to enjoin implementation of the recommendation," he said, "then the environmentalists will sue, saying the letter of the law says you can't kill all that marine life."

Nevertheless, Fay said he thinks the study was very well done. "The only thing wrong with it is, I think it was done for all the wrong reasons . . . documenting damage which we knew was going to happen."

The third biologist on the review committee, William W. Murdoch, was out of the country Wednesday and unavailable for comment. Murdoch, a professor of biological sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara was appointed to represent the interests of the Coastal Commission.

Chula Vista City Council member David Malcolm, who represents San Diego County on the Coastal Commission, said he was disturbed to learn that Southern California Edison had issued a press release stating that the study "confirmed that the operation of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is compatible with marine ecology."

"To say they aren't hurting the environment is garbage," Malcom said. "They are not good neighbors and never have been, as far as the environment goes."

Malcolm also said he is displeased that study was so expensive and said he would have preferred to see the money spent on mitigating the damage at the Tijuana River Estuary, which has been polluted for years with raw sewage from Mexico.

According to both Mechalas and Fay, the cost of the study ran higher than expected because of three years of construction delays at the power plant. The committee was charged with examining the marine environment before construction of the added reactors, then monitoring the environment after the reactors were in operation to observe the differences.

Mechalas said ocean studies are much more expensive than studies on dry land because they require trained divers, boats and sophisticated instruments to collect data. Many samples were taken over the years, and a lot of the data didn't even end up in the final report because it turned out not to be significant, he said. The kelp study alone cost about $300,000 a year to run, Mechalas said.

Fay added that a great deal of the money was spent on measuring ocean currents and on plankton sorting and counting, which he described as "very labor-intensive."

Fay placed more of the blame for the cost on Southern California Edison. "Utilities are not so much in the business of selling electricity as they are in the business of building power plants, so they were unconcerned going in about how much it would cost them."

Suggestions for San Onofre

-Building artifical reefs.

-Restoring wetlands.

-Reducing the flow of water taken in for cooling purposes.

-Upgrading the plant's system for keeping fish out of the intake pipes.

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