Nuclear power and its threat to fresh water supplies
According to a 2011 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, water withdrawals vary widely from one type of power plant to another: “On average in 2008, plants in the US nuclear fleet withdrew nearly eight times more freshwater than natural gas plants per unit of electricity generated, and 11 percent more than coal plants.
When water efficiency is factored into the equation, alternative energy sources, like wind turbines and solar cells, compare more favorably to coal, gas, and nuclear power.
Treading water, BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS, BY DAWN STOVER | 22 AUGUST 2012 In 1954, Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, gave a speech in which he famously predicted that “our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.” Whether he was talking about fission reactors or a secret fusion project is unclear, but he was wrong in either case. What did turn out to be too cheap to meter, however, was water.
Unless you have a private well or spring on your property, you probably don’t enjoy free water in your home. But it’s a different story if you’re running a power plant or drilling for oil: The biggest water consumers pay the least for every gallon, and most power plants pay almost nothing at all. Perhaps that’s why so little research and funding is devoted to saving water — far less than is spent on energy efficiency.
This year’s drought, however, is a painful reminder that water is not an unlimited resource. According to the National Climate Data Center, moderate to exceptional drought currentlycovers 64 percent of the contiguous United States. A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change predicts that severe and widespread droughts will continue during the coming decades……
A June 2012 report from the watershed-protection group River Network found that, for every gallon of water used in an average American household, five times as much water is used to provide that same home with electricity.
It takes water to make energy. Coal, gas, and nuclear power plants generate electricity using steam-driven turbine generators. They withdraw surface water from rivers, lakes, or other bodies and use it to cool the steam. Thermoelectric power production has been the largest category of water use in the United States since 1965, and it is currently the fastest-growing user of freshwater. In fact, thermoelectric production accounted for more than 41 percent of all freshwater withdrawals in 2005, the most recent year for which US Geological Survey data are available. That year, thermoelectric production consumed more than 200 billion gallons of water daily. That was about 675 gallons per person. Every. Single. Day.
According to a 2011 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, water withdrawals vary widely from one type of power plant to another: “On average in 2008, plants in the US nuclear fleet withdrew nearly eight times more freshwater than natural gas plants per unit of electricity generated, and 11 percent more than coal plants.” The mining of coal, oil, gas, and uranium together consumes less water than power production does. But that’s not saying much. The mining category is expanding quickly, spurred by a boom in unconventional fossil fuels like shale oil and gas. In the Bakken shale of North Dakota, for example, where rainfall is less than 15 inches per year, drillers inject up to 800 truckloads of pressurized water into each well in order to extract oil…….
When water efficiency is factored into the equation, alternative energy sources, like wind turbines and solar cells, compare more favorably to coal, gas, and nuclear power. And thus, it becomes obvious — blindingly so — that thermoelectric power plants need to switch from “once-through” cooling systems to recirculating systems.
The drought has made it clear to most Americans — though, sadly, not to our political leaders — that water efficiency is essential to smart energy planning. For far too long, water and energy experts have existed in separate realms; they are finally finding one another at the water-energy nexus. Now it’s time to redefine “all of the above,” the phrase both presidential candidates have embraced to describe their energy policies. Mitt Romney needs to rethink his opposition to government support for water-efficient technologies, and both he and Barack Obama should focus a lot more attention on conservation — the cheapest, safest, and most expedient solution to energy and water problems. In a year when drought, record-breaking heat, and dire scientific warnings about climate change are making headlines day after day, neither candidate has yet grasped that “all of the above” isn’t just about energy but also about that most essential — and increasingly scarce — ingredient of human life. It’s the water, stupid. http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/columnists/dawn-stover/treading-water
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