The Knock-on Effects of Global Warming: Too Darn Hot for Nuclear Power

July 17, 2012


It was so hot  last week, a twin-unit nuclear plant in northeastern Illinois had to get special permission to continue operating after the temperature of the water in its cooling pond rose to 102 degrees.

It was the second such request from the plant, Braidwood, which opened 26 years ago.  When it was new, the plant had permission to run as long as the temperature of its cooling water pond, a 2,500-acre lake in a former strip mine, remained below 98 degrees; in 2000 it got permission to raise the limit to 100 degrees.

The problem, said Craig Nesbit, a spokesman for Exelon, which owns the plant, is not only the hot days, but the hot nights. In normal weather, the water in the lake heats up during the day but cools down at night; lately, nighttime temperatures have been in the 90s, so the water does not cool.

Asked whether he viewed Braidwood’s difficulties as a byproduct of global warming, Mr. Nesbit said: “I’m not a climatologist. But clearly the calculations when the plant was first operated in 1986 are not what is sufficient today, not all the time.”


At the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that is generally critical of nuclear power safety, David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer, said the commission was supposed to grant exemptions from its rules if there was no increase or only a minor increase in risk, and if the situation could not have been foreseen.

The safety argument “is likely solid and justified,’’ he wrote in an e-mail, but “it is tough to argue (rationally) that warming water conditions are unforeseen.’’ That is a predictable consequence of global warming, he said.

 Of course, in a world where pursuing facts is mocked and derided as being “reality based”..,  those nasty “unforeseen” events happen more and more often, don’t they?
More below about knock-on effects of climate change on thermal plants.
The problem of Nuclear plant performance in climate driven heat waves is well known. During the European Heat Wave of 2003, and several times since, many of France’s vaunted nuclear plants had to be shut for fear of boiling the rivers where they drew their cooling water. In 2007, the Brown’s Ferry Nuclear plant, part of the TVA system, was forced to shut down due to cooling water issues, and authorities in the southeast faced difficult choices during that historic drought and heat wave – balancing the water needs of Atlanta, the cooling needs of the JP Farley Nuclear Plant on the Chatahootchie River, and the needs of the fishing industry and endangered mussels downstream.

19 November 2007—We’ve all heard those stories about some tiny endangered creature holding up a big engineering project. Sometimes concern about the fish or toad is really at the heart of the dispute. Sometimes it’s just an excuse in the hands of people who really want to stop the project for other reasons entirely. One of the most memorable examples was the 1970s controversy that pitted a big hydroelectric dam that was to be built on Tennessee’s Clinch River against the snail darter, a little endangered fish native to eastern Tennessee.

This story, however, is not about an endangered species torpedoing a big project; it’s about some endangered mussels actually protecting a nuclear power plant. It’s also a story about the drought afflicting the southeastern United States, the imminent threat to Atlanta’s water supply, and the danger that as lake and river waters fall, there might not be enough cooling water for the four nuclear power plants that provide much of Georgia’s and Alabama’s electricity. And it’s a story with a lot of unusual names in it.

Much of the drinking water for greater Atlanta’s 3.8 million residents comes from Lake Lanier, a huge reservoir north of Atlanta and one of five built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along the Chattahoochee River system. As it flows south, the Chattahoochee feeds into the Apalachicola River in North Florida, home of the fat threeridge and purple bankclimber mussels, the former of which is ”endangered,” and the latter ”threatened.”

In recent months, despite Atlanta’s dwindling water supplies, the corps has had to release enormous amounts of water into the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola system to protect the mussels. But at the end of last week, on 16 November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the Army can cut back on the amount of Lake Lanier water it’s diverting to save the small-fry, in effect preserving water for Atlanta. Naturally, Georgia’s Governor Sonny Perdue hailed the decision. Naturally, Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist will challenge it. (Florida depends on Chattahoochee water to protect not just its mussels but also a whole seafood industry.)

Florida isn’t the only state that might suffer to slake Atlanta’s thirst. Alabama’s Joseph M. Farley nuclear power plant, a two-unit complex on the Chattahoochee that provides Alabamans with about 20 percent of their electricity, depends on the river system for cooling water and other water needs. Up to now the Army’s diversion of Lanier water into the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola system to protect Florida’s mussels has coincidentally guaranteed the Farley nuclear station enough water. But if water reductions in that system get really drastic, might the plant have to power down?

Water for cooling thermoelectric power generation, coal, gas and nuclear, represents 49 percent of US surface water withdrawals. The numbers are similar world wide.  (One reason why the envisioned total coal-a-fication of China ain’t gonna happen, but that’s a story for another post..)

A recent study in Europe warned of the possible effects of climate change on thermoelectric power generation.

A European Commission-funded study conducted in part by the Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands predicted thermoelectric power generating capacity from 2031-60 will decrease 6-19 percent in Europe because of a lack of cooling water.

The study, released Monday, also predicted the likelihood of extreme reductions in thermoelectric power generation will, on average, jump by a factor of three during the period.

Thermoelectric power plants — those that burn fossil fuels or use nuclear fuel — rely on consistent volumes of water at particular temperatures to prevent overheating. Thermoelectric plants supply 78 percent of the electricity in Europe and account for 43 percent of the continent’s surface water use.

Because of that, reduced water availability and higher water temperatures caused by rising ambient air temperatures triggered by climate change will present significant potential problems for electricity supplies, the authors warned.

21 Responses to “The Knock-on Effects of Global Warming: Too Darn Hot for Nuclear Power”

  1. rayduray Says:

    Well it’s obvious. We need to build more power plants in Greenland where there’s abundant cold water. Then use the hot water discharge on grape plants and, voila, it’s “Vinland, The Renaissance Edition”. Why, I’d call it a no-brainer. [In more ways than one….]

  2. renewableguy Says:

    As the land and atmosphere warms around us, we compete with our power systems for fresh water. When we need air conditioning the most, the fossil fuel and nuclear plants may have to shut down.

    Its time to bring on the more friendly Renewable Energy. Wind and photovoltaic power need no water whatsoever. Solar produces best when its the hottest. What’s the holdup on this?

  3. Watching the Deniers Says:

    We’ll adapt to that.

    Increased irony that is.

  4. I maintain that we don’t do proper risk assessment. GW implications were know seriously back in the 50s. Yet they never were taken into account for nuke, doted all along our coast where sea level is going to flood them now for instance.

    Look at the failure rate of nuke compared to the expected …. Just crazy.

  5. MorinMoss Says:

    Greenman, I think this post dovetails nicely with your earlier one about the relative efficiencies of the various forms of power generation.

    Yes, the old stalwarts may be cheaper, usually more reliable, more concentrated etc than current renewables but all that throwaway heat doesn’t just disappear, especially when Nature is throwing out plenty heat of her own.

  6. rabiddoomsayer Says:

    The existing regulations have a largish error margin built in. So just change the rules, Fukushima wasn’t that bad was it?

  7. otter17 Says:

    Water is critical. When companies like GE start positioning themselves for the long term in water purification and other businesses, that says something.

  8. daryan12 Says:

    Cooling water demand is one of those pesky little “issues” that often gets forgotten by the nuclear industry, you know like the other little things, nuclear waste, safety, minor problems really 😉

    There is a technology called dry cooling (either by natural draught or mechanical ventilation) that gets around these issues, however it comes with a stiff penalty in terms of efficiency and cost.

    At some point one of the “thorium trolls” is going to show up and claim his imaginary none existent reactor can operate of off dry cooling and this is why its so much better. To preempt this comment, I would note that any power station can utilize dry cooling (tho generally you don’t want to do that with a large plant like a nuclear reactor due to the noted cost and efficiency issues), the only difference being other reactors (or renewables technologies) actually exist!

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