Sunday, October 28, 2007

Nuclear power and water scarcity: an Australian point of view

Science Alert (Australia and New Zealand): The connections between water scarcity, power generation and the federal government's promotion of nuclear power are worth reflecting on in National Water Week, held from October 21-27. Some problems associated with nuclear power are much discussed – such as its connection to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Less well known is the fact that nuclear power is the most water-hungry of all energy sources, with a single reactor consuming 35-65 million litres of water each day.

Water scarcity is already a serious problem for Australia's power-generation industry, largely because of our heavy reliance on water-guzzling coal-fired plants…Introducing nuclear power would exacerbate those problems. A December 2006 report by the Commonwealth Department of Parliamentary Services notes that the water requirements for a nuclear power station are 20-83 per cent higher than for other power stations. Moreover, those calculations do not include water consumption by uranium mines. The Roxby Downs mine in South Australia uses 35 million litres of water each day, with plans to increase this to 150 million litres each day. Mine operator BHP Billiton does not pay one cent for this water despite recording a record $17 billion profit in 2006-07.

Water outflows from nuclear power plants can damage the local environment…

Nuclear reactors in numerous European countries have been periodically taken off-line or operated at reduced output in recent years because of water shortages driven by climate change, drought and heat waves. Nuclear utilities have also sought and secured exemptions from operating conditions in order to discharge overheated water.

The water consumption of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency and conservation measures is negligible compared to nuclear or coal. Operating a 2,400 Watt fan heater for one hour consumes 0.01 litres of water if wind is the energy source, 0.26 litres if solar is the energy source, 4.5 litres if coal is the energy source, or 5.5 litres if nuclear power is the energy source.

Tim Flannery, the 2007 Australian of the Year, notes that hastening the uptake of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal 'hot rocks' will help ease the water crisis as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions - a win-win outcome.

Globally, there is another compelling reason to ensure that decisions on water allocation - including its use in energy production - are made wisely and equitably. Limited access to water is already contributing to armed conflicts ('water wars') in a number of places around the globe. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently noted that shortages of food and water in sub-Saharan Africa were a precursor to the current tragic violence in Darfur. The problem goes "far beyond Darfur", he warned, as many other places are now suffering water shortages.

Australia can ill-afford to replace one thirsty industry, coal, with an even thirstier one, nuclear power.

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