Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Drought could force nukes in Southeast US to close

While many (like Stephen Harper) see nuclear power as an “emission-free source of energy,” climate change itself may contribute to making the cure worse than the disease.

AP reports that drought could force nuclear plants in the southeastern US to throttle back or go offline temporarily. “Shockingly higher electric bills” could result from the wholesale purchase of replacement power the report says.

Jim Warren, executive director of North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, an environmental group critical of nuclear power, said, "Water is the nuclear industry's Achilles' heel.... You need a lot of water to operate nuclear plants."

Some plants require in excess of a billion gallons of water a day of which millions of gallons may be lost to evaporation.

An AP analysis found that 24 of the 104 nuclear reactors in the US are located within drought-stricken areas. All but 2 use submerged intake pipes to draw their water from lakes and streams. The concrete pipes may be as large as 18 feet in diameter and extend as far as a mile from the plant itself. Modifying them would be expensive and time-consuming.

Just one year of dry weather in the Southeastern US means that water levels in the lakes and rivers in question are getting close to minimums set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The risk is that the water could drop below the intake pipes altogether. Before that, the shallow water could become too hot to use as coolant.

Too much starting and stopping of nulear plants is also a problem. The AP report cites David Lochbaum, nuclear project safety director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, who warns that "Nuclear plants are best when they flatline -- when they stay up and running or shut down for long periods to refuel." Too much starting and stopping wears out pumps, valves, and motors.

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