Always in “Hot Water”

Charles Coutant, , UCS | November 21, 2017, 3:25 pm EST
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My wife likes to joke that I am always in “hot water.” It’s a play on words that reflects my career from college, at two National Laboratories and now in retirement.

America’s National Laboratories are hotbeds of scientific research directed at meeting national needs. In my case, working at two national labs helped me contribute to resolving growing issues of environmental impacts of energy technologies—thermal electric generating stations, in particular on aquatic life of rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

Getting a PhD in 1965, I was recruited by the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC’s) Hanford Laboratory (now the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy) to conduct research on thermal discharges to the Columbia River from nine Hanford, Washington, plutonium-producing nuclear reactors. They were part of cold-war nuclear weapons production, but their thermal discharges were not unlike those from a power plant, just larger.

With pretty good understanding of potential water-temperature effects on aquatic organisms, our team of researchers sought effects of elevated temperatures on various salmon populations and the river’s other aquatic life. We had two main objectives: (1) to identify effects of the Hanford reactors on the river’s life, and (2) to translate our findings into criteria for safely managing thermal discharges (like the 90-degree limit for damages I found for Delaware River invertebrates).

Our Hanford research caught the attention of AEC headquarters and its Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. There was interest in countering the public thermal pollution fears by doing research that could be applied to minimizing ecological impacts everywhere. Thus, in the fall of 1969, I was asked to leave Hanford, which I greatly enjoyed (as a Northeasterner, the Pacific Northwest was like a paid vacation!) and moved to Oak Ridge in spring of 1970.

At Oak Ridge, I put together a team to develop criteria for minimizing ecological effects of thermal effluents nation-wide.  Oak Ridge had no power plants of its own. Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power stations nearby were research sites, but our focus was on developing general criteria. We built a new Aquatic Ecology Laboratory with computer-controlled tank temperatures, a set of outside ponds to rear fish for experiments, hired biologists and engineers, and assembled a “navy” of boats for field work. We set to work at a fever pitch.

But then…. The Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the AEC was handed the Calvert Cliffs decision that mandated the AEC conduct complete reviews of the environmental impacts of the nuclear power stations it licensed. In 1972, our research staff was “reprogrammed” to prepare Environmental Impact Statements on operating and planned nuclear power plants. This turned out to be a tremendous opportunity to carefully evaluate not only thermal discharges but other impacts of using cooling water. By evaluating facilities across the country, we gained the nationwide perspective we needed for our research. With the National Lab having staff from many scientific and engineering fields to assign to the assessments, we gained a hugely valuable multi-disciplinary perspective that has helped us advance beyond just biology, fish and bugs.

Many years of productive thermal-effects work followed, with satisfaction that our contributions were often followed and our data used. We saw many of our efforts resolve issues for power plant thermal discharge permitting. The National Academies used our framework for water quality criteria for temperature; EPA used them as criteria for “Balanced Indigenous Communities” in thermally affected waters and setting temperature limits. As “thermal pollution” became more resolved, the Department of Energy and our National Laboratory provided our scientists the mission and capacity to work on other issues, most notably aquatic ecological effects of hydropower, that is helping with future innovation as technologies shift.

Throughout our research and analysis, we fostered “technology transfer” to the public through educational seminars and information aid to electricity generators. ORNL sanctioned some outside, site-specific consulting. I have been fortunate in retirement (since 2005) to continue to do this, and have assisted more than 50 companies and regulatory agencies (both domestic and foreign) with thermal effects issues. I feel good that the problem-solving research and analysis and application of this knowledge outside the labs (my “hot water”) have benefited society.

Through my time at the Hanford/Pacific Northwest and Oak Ridge national labs, I’ve worked with world-class researchers and scientists in many disciplines and have worked on projects that have advanced our understanding of ecological impacts from various energy sources. We need to continue to invest in our scientists at federal laboratories of the Department of Energy. I would like to thank my fellow scientists at government labs this Thanksgiving for the work they’ve done problem solving and finding innovative solutions for the public as well as private sector.

Dr. Charles Coutant retired as distinguished research ecologist in the Environmental Sciences Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2005. Dr. Coutant received his B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. in biology (ecology) from Lehigh University.  Since retirement he has served part time as an ecological consultant to regulatory agencies and industry.

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  • edwardrynearson

    Chickens are coming home to roost