The Problem with Nuclear–and Coal

No, it’s not how we dispose of the waste (though that’s obviously a problem). I’m talking about the problem people almost never talk about: water.

Everyone says water will be the next oil—the next valuable resource that becomes scarce and the subject of endless political machinations, including wars (with the difference being, of course, that a human civilization can survive without oil). And yet we rarely discuss what I see as the most serious and possibly intractable problem with nuclear power: it requires a lot of water. Publically available government and scientific documents show this lack of long-term discussion; a July 2009 paper by scholars at Virginia Tech states: “The water use processes for energy production and power generation technologies are not well documented in the literature.”

Given an expanding human population, and increasing pollution, any human activity that requires a great deal of water will present problems in the future.  However, there is evidence that climate change will exacerbate this problem.  Most scientists expect droughts of increasing severity and frequency, as well as greater extremes of temperature which, of course, will include heat waves.  The same paper, “Water Dependency of Energy Production and Power Generation Systems,” (Younos, Hill, and Poole 2009), states that “If current trends hold, it is projected that in the next twenty five years the U.S. electricity demand will jump by approximately fifty percent (EIA 2006; USDOE 2006).    http://www.vwrrc.vt.edu/pdfs/specialreports/sr-46_water_dependency_of_energy.pdf This trend will exert additional pressure on water demand to meet increased electricity demand. Unfortunately, it is also projected that in the next ten years, at least 36 states will face water shortages (GAO 2003; USDOE 2006).”

We have already seen what the effects of increased heat and dryness can do to a nuclear-powered country.  In 2003, the massive heat wave that swept across Europe lowered (and warmed) France’s water resources to the point that “the equivalent of four plants were shut down” when the temperatures in rivers reached record highs (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/aug/12/france.nuclear).  Unnervingly, during the 2003 crisis, France’s oldest nuclear power plant reached temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius inside, and was ordered by the authorities to be hosed down from the outside. (http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=29441)

And, unfortunately, nuclear power appears to be the most intensive in water use of all our current forms of energy generation and production.  The second most water intensive?  Fossil fuel thermoelectric plants, including, notably, coal plants.  Therefore, both nuclear power and advanced coal technology (known to marketers as “clean coal”) present a serious problem as providers of baseload electrical energy.  Because, when it comes down to it, in a water-poor world, we will have more pressing uses for water than cooling a nuclear power plant.

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2 comments so far

  1. Chris on

    Are coal and ethanol really more water intensive than ethanol?

  2. Bronwyn on

    The study separates “water use for extracting primary energy sources” and “water use for producing biofuels” from “water use for power generation.” They don’t compare the water it takes to produce or extract the natural resources that provide energy to the water costs of power generation in a plant. So, for instance, the water required for uranium mining is not included in the assessment I quoted–merely the water used in the plant to make electricity.

    Apples and oranges–


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