For all the arguments made by the opponents of nuclear power -- that it is uneconomical, unsafe, a potential boon to terrorists, poses waste-disposal issues, and all the rest -- nuclear's biggest threat may come from the one problem it is purported to address: climate change.
If, as many climatologists suggest, the heat waves in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere are an indication of shifts in global climate patterns, it could spell doom for nuclear power, whose viability is directly linked to the availability of adequate water supplies.
Consider what's happened lately on both sides of the Atlantic.
"The extended heat wave in July aggravated drought conditions across much of Europe, lowering water levels in the lakes and rivers that many nuclear plants depend on to cool their reactors," reports the Christian Science Monitor, adding
As a result, utility companies in France, Spain, and Germany were forced to take some plants offline and reduce operations at others. Across Western Europe, nuclear plants also had to secure exemptions from regulations in order to discharge overheated water into the environment. Even with an exemption to environmental rules this summer, the French electric company, Electricité de France (EDF), normally an energy exporter, had to buy electricity on European spot market, a way to meet electricity demand.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the utility giant Exelon last week cut the power at its nuclear power plant in Quad Cities, IL., after a heat wave warming the Mississippi River valley reduced the supply of cooling water, according to a Reuters report cited by the blog energy.buzz. The story cites similar drought-related cuts in nuclear plants in Minnesota and elsewhere in Illinois.
Such problems may be short-lived -- these plants' output have likely since been restored -- but the question remains: What happens to nuclear power's future if climate change reduces the availability of the water on which it depends?
This isn't the first time this question has surfaced. In the catastrophic European heat wave of August, 2003, many nuclear power plants had to reduce energy production or shut down because rivers simply did not carry enough water to ensure their cooling.
Lack of water isn't the only problem associated with heat-stricken nuclear plants. The French government announced last month that nuclear power plants situated along rivers will be allowed to drain hot water into the rivers at higher temperatures than normal, according to IPS News. The heat wave since mid-June has led authorities in France, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere in Europe to override their own environmental norms on the maximum temperature of water drained from the plants' cooling systems.
Of course, it's not just nuclear. Hydroelectric power plants are similarly affected by droughts, especially crucial for an economy in a country like Norway that is dependent on hydropower. In northern Italy this summer, low water levels in the River Po affected hydroelectric supplies, prompting power shortages in Rome that knocked out air-conditioning and left people trapped in elevators, reports the International Herald Tribune.
Indeed, any power plant that uses a steam cycle "has the potential problem of exceeding discharge limits if temperatures are excessively warm," as nuclear engineer Lisa Stiles-Shell points out in an industry blog. She notes that "only about 1/3 of the heat is usable to turn a turbine, the waste heat has to go somewhere." The point seems to be that nuclear is just as inefficient as other large, centralized power plants, so why pick on us?
Point taken. Still, these real-world problems should concern the nuclear industry more than they seem to. Droughts and releases of heated water into rivers don't show up much in the industry literature -- or in anti-nuclear activists' arguments. Perhaps they should. Access to water supplies is being seen increasingly as an economic, political, public health, and human rights issue. Overall, about one-third of all water used in Europe is used for cooling electrical generators, including those powered by both nuclear and fossil fuels. How will our growing need for power reconcile with our growing need to quench our farmlands, our wetlands, and our bodies?
As for nuclear in particular, the water issue needs to float to the top of concerns addressed by both advocates and opponents when make their respective cases. For now, the burden of proof seems to be on the nuclear industry. As Stéphane Lhomme, a spokesman for a French group Sortir du Nucléaire (Abandon Nuclear), told the Christian Science Monitor: "Global warming undermines the arguments we've always heard about nuclear power, that it doesn't damage the environment. Nuclear is not saving us from climate change. It's in trouble because of climate change."