Thursday, January 24, 2008

Southern drought could shut down nuclear plants

The once-moribund nuclear industry has seized upon climate change as their salvation. The mantra is, "No carbon emissions!" Even people who should know better -- people I respect -- have signed on.

The pro-nuke mantra becomes less plausible when you consider the huge volume of carbon involved in mining uranium, processing the ore, transporting fuel to and fro, and disposal. And let's not even worry that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository is dead, and that proliferation worries remain every bit as pressing as in the past.

Americans seem hardwired to love nuclear power plants, and give them major subsidies. Apologists name a price of $5-$7 per kilowatt hour, but that seems like a fairy tale. If the actual cost of nuclear power plants were visible to the market, the option would become even less attractive. If we subsidized wind and solar to similar degree, we'd be living in a Jetsons alternative energy fantasy, with solar air cars and off-the-grid houses hovering above pretty green lakes.

Every time a major objection appears, the pro-nuclear claque assures us that we'll engineer our way out of the problem. "We'll build better plants in the next round -- more money, please!" But the cooling issue is one area where the green pretensions of nuclear power stand revealed. A story in USA Today shows how the drought-parched southeastern U.S. states are having a harder time cooling their reactors: ...An Associated Press analysis of the nation's 104 nuclear reactors found that 24 are in areas experiencing the most severe levels of drought. All but two are built on the shores of lakes and rivers and rely on submerged intake pipes to draw billions of gallons of water for use in cooling and condensing steam after it has turned the plants' turbines.

Because of the year-long dry spell gripping the region, the water levels on those lakes and rivers are getting close to the minimums set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Over the next several months, the water could drop below the intake pipes altogether. Or the shallow water could become too hot under the sun to use as coolant.

"If water levels get to a certain point, we'll have to power it down or go off line," said Robert Yanity, a spokesman for South Carolina Electric & Gas, which operates the Summer nuclear plant outside Columbia, S.C....

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