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Water Worries

With new plants pending, cooling requires serious thought.

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2008

Thanks to “Blinky,” the three-eyed fish in The Simpsons, nuclear cooling has gotten a bad rap. And these days, as people begin discussing the pros and cons of the nuclear renaissance more frequently, cooling-water issues are emerging as a significant concern—whether enough of it will be available for cooling, and what the environmental consequences might be if new plants are built.

As the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) notes, “Growing demand for electric power, coupled with growing water demand in agricultural, municipal, residential, commercial, and industrial sectors, could strain water supplies in the future. … Pressures and associated operating challenges are expected to grow significantly as utilities seek to permit and build new generation facilities to meet growing electricity demand.”

Another organization watching the issue is the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). In 2007, for example, NEI noted that, because rainfall in some areas of the country was 15 to 20 inches below normal, energy companies took steps to reduce water consumption and otherwise conserve water supplies.

“Water is a serious issue,” cautions Robert Goldstein, a senior scientist with EPRI. “Every region of the country is vulnerable to shortages. As such, any sector of the economy that uses water is vulnerable to having their activities disrupted.”

And it’s not just a problem in the arid West. “We have already seen the economic and social infrastructures stressed in the Southeast as a result of the recent droughts,” he says.

Joe Turnage, a senior vice president with Unistar Nuclear Energy, the nuclear division of Constellation Energy, agrees with Goldstein. “We are in a water-constrained world,” Turnage says. “Thermoelectric power generation as a whole accounts for about 40 percent of freshwater withdrawal, but only about 3 percent of actual consumption. Going forward, we will have to approach the development of new generation alternatives consistent with the development of available water supply.”

According to Michael Hightower, a member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories, nuclear plants currently use the largest amount of water per megawatt hour of any form of electric generation. He also cites research conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2007, noting that many major groundwater aquifers are experiencing reductions in water quality and yield. In addition, there is little increase in surface-water storage capacity since 1980. “There are also concerns over climate impacts on surface-water supplies,” Hightower says.

According to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), most state water managers expect water shortages over the next decade, even under average conditions. And more to the point: A 2003 heat wave in France caused a water shortage that forced outages at up to 15 percent of the country’s nuclear-generation capacity for five weeks.

“Many of the new nuclear plants being proposed are designed to be built at sites where other plants already exist,” Hightower says. “It may be difficult to license some of these new plants if there are water-availability limitations or thermal limitations.”

Technology to the Rescue

EPRI is conducting research on

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