Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nuclear and Water

I've been drowning in work and other stuff lately, so no blog posts. Like everyone else though, I've been watching the unfolding tragedy in Japan and just hope that they manage to contain the radiation from reaching dangerous levels. From the latest news this morning, things don't look particularly good. (On a personal level, I have some friends in Tokyo that have managed to book a flight out so minor relief...)

Amidst all the articles and reports, I spotted this one, Japan's Nuclear Morality Tale, by Brahma Chellaney. I mention it not because it provides the most succinct account of the Fukushima plant accident, but rather because it touches on the specific area of research that forms the backdrop for my master's dissertation... the water-energy nexus. A snippet from Chellaney's article:
All energy generators, including coal- and gas-fired plants, make major demands on water resources. But nuclear power requires even more. Light-water reactors (LWRs) like those at Fukushima, which use water as a primary coolant, produce most of the world’s nuclear power. The huge quantities of local water that LWRs consume for their operations become hot-water outflows, which are pumped back into rivers, lakes, and oceans. 
Because reactors located inland put serious strain on local freshwater resources – including greater damage to plant life and fish – water-stressed countries that are not landlocked try to find suitable seashore sites. But, whether located inland or on a coast, nuclear power is vulnerable to the likely effects of climate change. 
As global warming brings about a rise in average temperatures and ocean levels, inland reactors will increasingly contribute to, and be affected by, water shortages. During the record-breaking 2003 heat wave in France, operations at 17 commercial nuclear reactors had to be scaled back or stopped because of rapidly rising temperatures in rivers and lake. Spain’s reactor at Santa María de Garoña was shut for a week in July 2006 after high temperatures were recorded in the Ebro River. 
Paradoxically, then, the very conditions that made it impossible for the nuclear industry to deliver full power in Europe in 2003 and 2006 created peak demand for electricity, owing to the increased use of air conditioning. 
Indeed, during the 2003 heat wave, Électricité de France, which operates 58 reactors – the majority on ecologically sensitive rivers like the Loire – was compelled to buy power from neighboring countries on the European spot market. The state-owned EDF, which normally exports power, ended up paying 10 times the price of domestic power, incurring a financial cost of €300 million. 
Similarly, although the 2006 European heat wave was less intense, water and heat problems forced Germany, Spain, and France to take some nuclear power plants offline and reduce operations at others. Highlighting the vulnerability of nuclear power to environmental change or extreme-weather patterns, in 2006 plant operators in Western Europe also secured exemptions from regulations that would have prevented them from discharging overheated water into natural ecosystems, affecting fisheries. 
France likes to showcase its nuclear power industry, which supplies 78% of the country’s electricity. But such is the nuclear industry’s water intensity that EDF withdraws up to 19 billion cubic meters of water per year from rivers and lakes, or roughly half of France’s total freshwater consumption. Freshwater scarcity is a growing international challenge, and the vast majority of countries are in no position to approve of such highly water-intensive inland-based energy systems. 
The central dilemma of nuclear power in an increasingly water-stressed world is that it is a water guzzler, yet vulnerable to water.
At the risk of sounding dangerously hyperopic in the context of a much nearer humanitarian and economic crisis, I believe that the water-energy nexus will receive growing attention in the years to come. And, at risk of sounding spectacularly self-absorbed in the context of a much wider humanitarian and economic crisis, my own research is currently aimed at quantifying the value of water in generating (thermo)electric power. In particular, I've been looking at how electricity prices have been affected by incidences of water scarcity and high temperatures (such as during the European heat waves referred to above). As intimated in the article, the irony is that many low-carbon energy technologies - e.g. nuclear, hydro - become less efficient in a hotter and drier world.

This, in a nutshell, is a research question that I would like to investigate should I pursue a PhD. What are the strategic decisions facing countries in committing to certain energy technologies, given that they might be subject to inherent vulnerabilities as a result of climate change? (For instance, how economically viable is it for an east African country, or China, to invest in massive hydropower projects, when climate models indicate disruptions to future water supplies.) Of course, there are any number of factors affecting this... from a binding emissions agreements between nations, to regional climate specifics; e.g. some areas stand to get much more rainfall and not less. Still, I think that it is an intriguing strategic question that deserves further exploration...

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Opportunity costs. There are trade-offs involved in anything we do, and particularly when it comes to energy production and the environment. There are no free lunches... although there might be low-hanging fruit!


  1. The energy water nexus is both fascinating and critical, whether one is talking about nuclear power plants, other thermoelectric plants, hydro, or the amount of electricity used to treat and move water around (something like 19% of all electricity demand in California, I believe).

    Perhaps the nastiest detail is the one mentioned in the text you quoted, nuclear plants being forced to throttle down or shut down completely because of too warm water or simply not enough of it. Some environmental experts I've talked to in the US don't realize it happened here in 2007 and 2010. This sort of service interruption adds a very ugly level of complexity to planning for new plants; suddenly planners can no longer look at the history of a river flowing through a given area, but have to look to climate experts for predictions of what might happen during the lifetime of the plant. And as we've seen, the lifetime of nuclear plants is routinely extended by 10 or 20 years thanks to the cost of new construction and licensing difficulties.

    And then we have Lake Mead in the US, the body behind the Hoover Dam, where the water level has been declining steadily for years and is currently near a crisis level. Another example is hydro fed by melt water from the Andes, which will become a less than reliable source in the coming years.

    Between the E/W nexus, water for agriculture and direct consumption, and rising sea levels, I get the feeling we'll be talking a lot about water over the next few decades.

  2. Lou, thanks for your thoughts.

    (For anyone interested in water, energy and climate, I highly recommend a visit to Lou's blog:

    Ya, it's always a shock when you see stats like the one you quoted for California, which indicate the extent to which water and energy are intertwined. I didn't mention it in my post, but I'm sure you know (those others might not) that the thermoelectric power industry accounts for approximately 40% of total water withdrawals in the US... A figure that places it on par, if not higher, than agriculture.

    Of course, the majority of the water used for electricity generation is returned and agriculture is much more "consumptive" in that sense. Nevertheless, returning cooling water to its source certainly has adverse effects of its own; as the above discussion clearly highlights.

    I think you are absolutely right about water becoming a major topic of the next few decades. IMHO, it will be one of the defining issues of the years to come.


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