Climate change, hot summers, having a bad effect on nuclear power plants
US, European nuclear and coal-fired electrical plants vulnerable to climate change: study Phys Og, June 3, 2012 Warmer water and reduced river flows in the United States and Europe in recent years have led to reduced production, or temporary shutdown, of several thermoelectric power plants. For instance, the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama had to shut down more than once last summer because the Tennessee River’s water was too warm to use it for cooling.
A study by European and University of Washington scientists published today in Nature Climate Change projects that in the next 50 years warmer water and lower flows will lead to more such power disruptions. The authors predict that thermoelectric power generating capacity from 2031 to 2060 will decrease by between 4 and 16 percent in the U.S. and 6 to 19 percent in Europe due to lack of cooling water. The likelihood of extreme drops in power generation—complete or almost-total shutdowns—is projected to almost triple.
“This study suggests that our reliance on thermal cooling is something
that we’re going to have to revisit,” said co-author Dennis
Lettenmaier, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering.
Thermoelectric plants, which use nuclear or fossil fuels to heat water
into steam that turns a turbine, supply more than 90 percent of U.S.
electricity and account for 40 percent of the nation’s freshwater
usage. In Europe, these plants supply three-quarters of the
electricity and account for about half of the freshwater use.
While much of this water is “recycled,” the power plants rely on
consistent volumes of water, at a particular temperature, to prevent
the turbines from overheating.
Reduced water availability and warmer water, caused by increasing air temperatures associated with climate change, mean higher electricity costs and less reliability.
While plants with cooling towers will be affected, results show older
plants that rely on “once-through cooling” are the most vulnerable.
These plants pump water directly from rivers or lakes to cool the
turbines before returning the water to its source, and require high
The study projects the most significant U.S. effects at power plants
situated inland on major rivers in the Southeast that use once-through
cooling, such as the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama and the New Madrid
coal-fired plant in southeastern Missouri.
“The worst-case scenarios in the Southeast come from heat waves where
you need the power for air conditioning,” Lettenmaier said. “If you
have really high power demand and the river temperature’s too high so
you need to shut your power plant down, you have a problem.”
The study used hydrological and water temperature models developed by
Lettenmaier and co-author John Yearsley, a UW affiliate professor of
civil and environmental engineering. The European authors combined
these with an electricity production model and considered two
climate-change scenarios: one with modest technological change and one
that assumed a rapid transition to renewable energy. The range of
projected impacts to power systems covers both scenarios.
The U.S. and Europe both have strict environmental standards for the
volume of water withdrawn by plants and the temperature of the water
discharged. Warm periods coupled with low river flows could thus lead
to more conflicts between environmental objectives and energy
Discharging water at elevated temperatures causes yet another problem:
downstream thermal pollution.
“Higher electricity prices and disruption to supply are significant
concerns for the energy sector and consumers, but another growing
concern is the environmental impact of increasing water temperatures
on river ecosystems, affecting, for example, life cycles of aquatic
organisms,” said first author Michelle van Vliet, a doctoral student
at the Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands.
Given the high costs and the long lifetime of power plants, the
authors say, such long-range projections are important to let the
electricity sector adapt to changes in the availability of cooling
water and plan infrastructure investments
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