Rising Temperatures in the Long Island Sound Have Shown the Need For a Serious Climate Change Discussion

Millstone Nuclear Power Plant (photo courtesy isssource.com)

Last week, for the first time in its 37-year history, Unit 2 of the Millstone nuclear power plant was shut down because the Long Island Sound water used to cool it off was too damned warm. That plant provides half of all of Connecticut’s power.

It remained off-line at the end of the week. “Temperatures in Long Island Sound are still too high,” explains Millstone spokesman Ken Holt. In fact, average water temperatures in the Sound have risen by almost two degrees since 1976, and there’s no indication that trend is stopping.

If that worries you, if you wonder whether global warming has something to do with it, if you’re thinking that climate change is getting too close for comfort, and if you’re puzzled that none of this is being debated in this election year, you’re not alone.

A national survey by a Yale University project recently found that 55 percent of all registered voters say candidate’s views on global warming really do matter.

The problem in this election year is that, despite all the radically weird weather across the nation, way too many candidates seem to be avoiding the issue like some loathsome disease.

“I haven’t heard anyone talking about it,” says Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for Save the Sound. She thinks the Millstone shutdown should be a scary wake-up call for everyone in Connecticut — politicians and voters alike.

“This is the first time it’s hit us in the face that warming water in the Sound can really affect our infrastructure,” she says.

In the past, says Schmalz, the global warming concerns have been about stuff like the die off of the Sound’s lobsters and gradually rising sea levels and peculiar weather patterns. Shutting down a plant that Connecticut relies on for so much of its electricity takes it to a whole new level.

Anthony Leiserowitz, a professor and research scientist and director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, says part of the reason there’s so little global warming debate in this election is cold political calculation. Another part of it, he says, is unwarranted candidate fear.

“This is not a top national priority,” says Leiserowitz. “Climate change is always at the bottom of the list of national priorities.”

Polls consistently show that the economy, jobs, health care, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are far more important to voters these days (and thus to candidates) than doing something about global warming.

The fear is that “talking about this issue is actually a political loser,” explains Leiserowitz, and that a candidate will piss off voters by arguing for taking action to curb global warming, that it will “actually cost you votes.”

A survey the Yale project did in March indicated there’s a lot less risk of that than candidates believe.

Leiserowitz says significant majorities of voters believe global warming should be a pretty big priority for a president and Congress. That includes 84 percent of Democrats surveyed, 68 percent of unaffiliated voters, and 52 percent of Republicans.

Taking a stand in favor of action to reduce global warming “certainly seems to win votes among Democrats and independents,” he says of the survey’s findings, “and there is relatively little impact with Republican voters.”

Those findings would appear to offer GOP candidates who favor U.S. climate change action an opportunity to win over independent voters, who are the largest single block in the electorate.

But there is a painfully thorny problem for GOP candidates who might want to talk about climate change, Leiserowitz adds. The same survey showed there is “a small, but important vocal wing” of the Republican party who are convinced global warming is a hoax or a plot to increase government control and undermine economic freedom. That’s the position of a great many Tea Partiers who have become key players in the Republican scene.

“I suspect many Republican candidates feel they can’t talk about it… because they’re afraid of rousing the ire of very conservative members of their own base,” says Leiserowitz.

One Connecticut conservative who continues to reject the argument that humans are largely responsible for global warming is state Rep. John Piscopo, a Republican from the northwestern Connecticut town of Thomaston.

“I worry about the agenda of the alarmists and I don’t believe it’s human-caused,” says Piscopo. He doesn’t deny that there may be global warming going on, but says it’s primarily a long-term thing that humans didn’t really cause and can’t really control.

The shut down of Millstone 2 is a concern, he says, because the plant provides such a large share of Connecticut’s energy. Some technical fixes will be needed to the plant or the way it uses the Sound’s water for coolant, according to Piscopo, but that’s about it.

“No, I don’t believe there’s a lot we can do to reduce the heating trend in the Sound,” he shrugs. “Weather happens.”

Nor is Piscopo surprised that so many American voters now believe that humans are responsible for a lot of climate change. He says that’s a natural response to the constant drumbeat of stories he says is put out by “mainstream media to perpetrate the pseudo-science” of global warming.

Meanwhile, down at Millstone, the nuke power scientists are trying to come up with a solution to that too-warm Sound water. Federal standards now say they can’t use seawater as coolant if it’s warmer than 75 degrees, and Millstone is trying to figure out if that limit could be safely raised.

Holt says July was the hottest on record, and that after an extraordinarily warm winter season, and that the Sound’s waters have been averaging 1.7 degrees above the federal standard.

There is no sign that the Sound is going to start cooling down. “That’s the trend,” says Holt, “it’s in an upward direction.”

If the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn’t agree to raising that 75-degree limit, and the Sound continues its summer warming curve, Holt says the only option Millstone will have is to shut down each time they hit that temperature ceiling.

For Schmalz, this scenario and the lack of political discussion about it are “extremely worrisome.”

“It’s kind of like the canary in the coal mine,” she says.

The way that used to work is the miners would take a canary into the deep shafts, and when toxic gases started to fill up the tunnels, the sensitive bird would be the first to keel over. Theoretically, that would give the miners time to reach safety.

Whether there’s time to find a way out of this over-heated climate-change mine shaft before it’s too late is anyone’s guess.