In a corner of the winding James River, there’s a hot spot, both literally and figuratively.
Since 1972, Dominion Energy’s Surry Nuclear Power Station has created a warm, bath tub-like habitat in the James River, attracting a diverse array of fish and anglers alike.
While the water comes directly from the nuclear plant, it’s not boiling hot — or radioactive.
“[It] is certainly much warmer than the normal water temperature,” VIMS Marine Recreation Specialist Susanna Musick said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the James River water temperature can be in the 30s in January.
The difference in water temperature can prevent fish from migrating from water heated by some nuclear power plants, such as the Elizabeth River Power Station in Chesapeake, VIMS experts say, meaning anglers can find certain species such as speckled trout and red drum year-round.
But biologists also say the nuclear power station shows no signs of harming wildlife.
“There have been no reports of excessive numbers of fish with external sores or poor condition,” said Bob Greenlee, eastern regional fisheries manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, about the Dominion Surry Nuclear Power Station.
Where’s the hot water come from?
The increase in water temperature near Hog Island is a product of the Surry Nuclear Power Station’s cooling method.
The power station, which provides power to 420,000 homes, has a permit issued by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality through 2033, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“We make sure we meet the requirements of our permits,” Richard Zuercher, manager of nuclear fleet communications for Dominion Energy.
Water from the river flows in from the south side of Hog Island in a canal and into a series of pipes. The pipes run through steam that is used to spin turbines that make electricity, condensing the steam with the cooler river water.
When the steam is condensed, it cycles through the process again. The river water, on the other hand, is returned to the James on the north side of Hog Island.
Through the process, the river water is warmed at least seven degrees Fahrenheit from its starting temperature, Zuercher said.
“It’s all pretty well thought-out,” Zuercher said. “The water is not an environmental hazard.”
A refuge for fish
Now, during some summer months, the water near the Surry Nuclear Power Station can feel as warm as bath water, much warmer than the rest of the river.
“The area around the discharge provides a refuge from colder water temperatures during winter months,” Greenlee said. “Fish in these areas are able to remain active and feed.”
The phenomenon is not only present in the James River, it also occured at the coal-fired Elizabeth River Power Station, a Dominion Energy-owned plant in Chesapeake, before it closed in September 2015.
“That river water is what the fish are attracted to,” Zuercher said. “It makes for good fishing… At our north Anna site, it’s the same thing — huge bass just jumping up out of the water near where the discharge goes into that canal.”
After the plant closed, Susanna said, the number of fish in the plant’s discharge canal decreased drastically.
Negative impacts on fish health?
Although the hot discharge affects the movement of native fish — especially during migration — fish in the James River appear to be healthy.
“The primary effect of the discharge seems to be that of an artificial thermal refuge, where fish avoid the normal cycles (for this region) of seasonal cold water,” Greenlee said.
The VDGIF does not specifically monitor fish health, but reports of diseased fish have not surfaced.
A study published in “Estuaries and Coasts” in 1984 reported that the Surry Nuclear Power Station had some impacts on benthic invertebrate populations, such as brackish water claims, worms and other organisms.
Those impacts included less winter die-off, acceleration of growth, extension of creek-dwelling organisms into the James River and increased severity of late summer population depressions.
While there were some identifiable impacts, researchers said there was no major ecological damage that could be attributed to the power plant.
The prevalence of fish around nuclear power plants has also aided science and area nonprofits.
Before Dominion shuttered the Elizabeth River Power Station, the power company partnered with Project Healing Waters to allow veterans to fish in the hot ditch.
The fishing was fruitful, even for the winter, Musick said.
The hot ditch, while the plant was still in operation, also allowed Musick to collect data and tag fish year-round.
“The fish would winter in the outflow ditch, where it’s nice and warm,” Musick said. “The Elizabeth River has seen a big change since the facility closed… Instead of sticking around, we expect fish to migrate to warmer waters.”
The fishing may be good, but Dominion officials ask anglers to be mindful not to trespass around the Surry Nuclear Power Station’s discharge site. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Dominion has taken extra security measures to keep trespassers off-site.
“There are buoy boundaries letting people know not to get too near to the station,” Zuercher said.
Update: This story had been updated to clarify when VIMS experts were referring to the Elizabeth River Power Station in Chesapeake.