Saturday, January 26, 2008

Drought and Nuclear Power

The prospect of water wars and extended drought as a side effect of global warming places the nuclear power industry in an increasingly untenable position. As nuclear power proponents try to cast the moribund technology as a carbon-free power source to lead us out of the global warming crisis, real-world concerns cast a different light on nuclear futures.

As reported by The Associated Press and reposted on, droughts across the Southeast United States could force serious power reductions or plant shutdowns this coming year. The rivers and lakes that supply the cooling water essential to plant operation are at extremely low levels.

Already, there has been one brief, drought-related shutdown, at a reactor in Alabama over the summer.

“Water is the nuclear industry’s Achilles’ heel,” said Jim Warren, executive director of N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, an environmental group critical of nuclear power. “You need a lot of water to operate nuclear plants.” He added: “This is becoming a crisis.”

The current situation mirrors the crisis that occurred in Europe during the heat wave in 2006. Countries dependent on nuclear power often had to reduce power or shut down as the temperatures soared. Buying electricity from other sources in this type of situation is very expensive.

During Europe’s brutal 2006 heat wave, French, Spanish and German utilities were forced to shut down some of their nuclear plants and reduce power at others because of low water levels - some for as much as a week.

If a prolonged shutdown like that were to happen in the Southeast, utilities in the region might have to buy electricity on the wholesale market, and the high costs could be passed on to customers.

“Currently, nuclear power costs between $5 to $7 to produce a megawatt hour,” said Daniele Seitz, an energy analyst with New York-based Dahlman Rose & Co. “It would cost 10 times that amount that if you had to buy replacement power - especially during the summer.”

There are many other reasons why nuclear power doesn't make sense (safety concerns, waste disposal, scarcity of uranium ore, cost overruns, terrorist threats), but sometimes the issue is basic and inescapable: without abundant water, nuclear power plants can't operate.