According to current nuclear industry proposals, over two dozen new nuclear reactors would be constructed in the United States, the vast majority in the Southeast and Texas. President Obama recently offered $8.3 billion worth of taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to two of them in Georgia, which could be the first to be built in the U.S. in nearly four decades.
Wall Street isn’t interested in investing in these expensive and risky projects, so these guarantees promise that taxpayers will pay back the nuclear industry’s loans if the project fails.
In addition to the high cost and risks, new reactors create another problem, one that is rarely mentioned: they put enormous pressure on water resources. Nuclear reactors require huge amounts of cooling water to operate; without adequate water, they cannot produce electricity. (According to the industry’s Electric Power Research Institute, nuclear reactors can consume between 400 and 720 gallons per megawatt hour while coal consumes about 300 gallons and natural gas, less than 250 gallons.)
So, the U.S. is pinning its energy future on a power source that is the most vulnerable to weather extremes and that stresses the water resources on which we rely for healthy people and strong economies. As we all have seen in recent years, weather patterns can be wildly erratic, producing floods as well as droughts.
Does anybody remember the drought that hit the Southeastern U.S. in 2007? During that summer and fall, one of the worst dry spells in over a century triggered water wars, forced power stations – including reactors – to reduce operations, and saw rivers and lakes reach their lowest levels in memory. Water had to be trucked into communities and rationing was widespread. In many areas, daily life was heavily disrupted.
Scientists say that warmer temperatures from climate change will mean a less dependable supply of water. This should be of special concern to residents of the southeastern United States, which is seeing its energy demand grow – and its water resources become increasingly stressed. In the Southeast, electric power production accounts for nearly two-thirds of all freshwater withdrawals, or nearly 40 billion gallons daily. (That’s as much as all public-water supply customers use in the U.S. each day.)
During a 2006 heat wave, reactors in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Minnesota were either forced to cut output or shut down entirely because there was not enough cooling water.
During a 2003 heat wave in France, air temperatures at nuclear reactors came within two degrees of requiring an emergency shutdown. Employees were forced to use garden hoses to spray cold water on the exterior walls of the reactors to keep them from overheating.
Concerns about adequate cooling water have been raised in the context of Exelon Corporation’s plans to build two reactors in Victoria County, Texas. Those reactors would use water from the Guadalupe River, which during a 2009 drought dropped so low it could no longer supply drinking water to the community.
On March 25, Exelon withdrew its application for a construction and operating license for the site, and has applied for an “early site permit” that must examine the water issue.
The water supply question isn’t an arcane one to be thrashed out quietly among engineers working for utility companies. Taxpayers have a multi-billion-dollar stake in this question. They are guaranteeing the loans to build these reactors. If they aren’t economical and reliable, then the utility could default, leaving U.S. taxpayers to bail them out.
The Obama administration has proposed tripling loan guarantees for additional reactors. Some in Congress even support a “permanent financing platform” in the form of risky loan guarantees to underwrite all new reactors.
So, as investors in these projects, taxpayers have every right to ask: Will these multi-billion-dollar reactors be rendered useless each summer as rivers and lakes dry up and the region scrambles to meet basic water needs? Will this expensive and risky power source be able to help us curb our global warming pollution?
We need to make smart choices for our energy future – choices that are economical and protective of public health and natural resources. Nuclear power falls short in both categories.
Decock is the president of Clean Water Action