Under new pending regulations, New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection will not require the two nuclear power plants in Salem County,  to build cooling towers.

The decision is not yet finalized but is facing intense criticism from local environmental groups, who say the current practice of sucking in water from the Delaware River to maintain safe reactor temperatures — and then releasing the hot water back into the waterway — kills 3 billion fish every year.

"This is essentially a moving fish fry," said Doug O'Malley of Environment New Jersey. "Because this water is superheated it obviously changes the ecology of the Delaware Bay."

In addition to the high temperatures, fish die when they get pinned to intake screens that block marine life from entering the power plant.

Cooling towers or other "closed loop" systems that recycle water would drastically cut the number of fish killed, activists say.  They're asking the DEP to mandate them.

"We're not asking for the moon, the sun and the stars," said O'Malley. " We're just asking for the Salem nuclear facility to comply with the Clean Water Act and to install technology that we've had for decades."

It's a move environmental groups have been pushing for 25 years. The Salem plant's existing permit lapsed nine years ago, and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and New Jersey Sierra Club sued to see a revised set of regulations. But when the document finally arrived on June 30th, it wasn't what the activists had in mind.

"DEP has just basically reissued the same old permit," said Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "They're allowing them to continue to fish slaughter. They're allowing them to continue to dump superheated water with chemicals into the Bay."

New Jersey DEP spokesperson Lawrence Hajna said the draft permit complies with updated rules the EPA recently made to the Clean Water Act.

Joe Delmar of PSEG Nuclear, which runs and partially owns the Salem Generating Station, acknowledged that cooling towers would help with the problems associated with water intake. But, he said, retrofitting the 30-plus-year-old plants with cooling towers would reduce their overall efficiency and require taking them offline for years.

"We would need to run coal or natural gas plants to meet up the lost energy," he said, which would have its own detrimental effects on the environment.

Each plant, he noted, provides enough electricity to power one million homes a day, and both are slated to operate for another 25 to 30 years.

About a decade ago, the company estimated the cost of constructing cooling towers to be approximately $1 billion.

The draft permit was issued with a 60-day comment period, which will end September 4th, and one public hearing in August — deliberately timed, environmentalists say, with summer vacations.

Hajna disputed this claim, noting that any time of year could be interpreted as being bad.

Ultimately, Tittel said he expects to have to bring the issue back to court.

"If DEP will not protect the bay and the estuary," he said, "the Sierra Club will."