The central dilemma of nuclear power in an increasingly water-stressed world is that it is a water guzzler, yet vulnerable to water.
The troubles of the Fukushima nuclear-power plant – and other reactors – in north-east Japan have dealt a severe blow to the global nuclear industry, a powerful cartel of fewer than a dozen major state-owned or state-guided firms trumpeting a nuclear-power renaissance.
But the risks that seaside reactors like Fukushima face from natural disasters are well known. Indeed, they became evident six years ago, when the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 inundated India’s second-largest nuclear complex, shutting down the Madras power station.
Owing to climate change, which will cause a rise in ocean levels, seaside reactors will become even more vulnerable. But inland reactors are also vulnerable.
All generators, including coal- and gas-fired plants, make major demands on water resources. Nuclear power, though, requires even more. Light-water reactors (LWRs) like those at Fukushima, which use water as a primary coolant, produce most of the world’s nuclear power. The huge quantities of water that LWRs consume become hot-water outflows, which are pumped back into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Since reactors located inland put serious strain on local freshwater resources – including damage to plant life and fish – water-stressed countries that are not landlocked try to find suitable seashore sites.
But with global warming, inland reactors will increasingly contribute to, and be affected by, water shortages. During the 2003 heat-wave in France, operations at 17 nuclear reactors had to be scaled back or suspended because of rapidly rising temperatures in rivers and lake. Spain’s reactor at Santa María de Garoña was shut for a week in July 2006 because of high temperatures in the River Ebro.
During the 2003 heat wave, Électricité de France (EdF), which operates 58 reactors – the majority on ecologically sensitive rivers like the Loire – was compelled to buy power from neighbouring countries on the European spot market. The state-owned EdF, which normally exports power, ended up paying ten times the price of domestic power, incurring a cost of €300 million.
Similarly, though the 2006 heat-wave was less intense, water and heat problems forced Germany, Spain, and France to take some nuclear-power plants offline and reduce operations at others. Plant operators in western Europe also secured exemptions from regulations that would have prevented them from discharging overheated water into natural ecosystems, affecting fisheries.
France likes to showcase its nuclear power industry, which supplies 78% of the country’s electricity. But such is the nuclear industry’s water intensity that EdF withdraws up to 19 billion cubic metres of water per year from rivers and lakes, or roughly half of France’s total freshwater consumption. The vast majority of countries are in no position to approve of such highly water-intensive inland-based energy systems.
The central dilemma of nuclear power in an increasingly water-stressed world is that it is a water guzzler, yet vulnerable to water. And, decades after Lewis L. Strauss, the chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Agency, claimed that nuclear power would become “too cheap to meter”, the nuclear industry everywhere still subsists on munificent government subsidies.
Since nearly two-fifths of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometres of a coastline, finding suitable seaside sites for the initiation or expansion of a nuclear-power programme for the ‘nuclear newcomers’ is no longer easy.
Fukushima is likely to stunt the appeal of nuclear power in the same way as the accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 and meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986. If the fallout from those incidents is a reliable guide, however, nuclear power’s advocates will eventually be back.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. © Project Syndicate, 2011