* This commentary was written by Sierra Hollister for the Energy Current in our August newsletter.
The picture above says it all. We know the right choices for power production: solar, wind and water. It couldn’t be simpler. And now, more than ever, we need to push for these choices. There are several renowned environmentalists who have previously been against nuclear power and are now advocating for nuclear. This about face is wholly based on the climate crisis and the position is that for all the flaws of nuclear, it does not contribute to global warming. While it is true that nuclear does not impact our climate the way carbon based fuel sources do, the potential for other environment destroying impacts is still too high. And, nuclear is an outrageous proposition for power generation, basically the most expensive and dangerous way to heat water, ever.
Lately, even the proponents of nuclear have to face up to some of the limitations of nuclear as we navigate an ever warmer planet. This week Connecticut’s nuclear power plant, Millstone Power Station, had to shut down one of two units on Sunday because the seawater used to cool down the plant is too warm. Water from Long Island Sound is used to cool components and is then discharged back into the sound. The water cannot be warmer than 75 degrees but has been averaging almost 2 degrees higher than the limit. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued an “emergency license amendment” last week, allowing Millstone to use an average temperature of several readings. It has not been enough and even with averages, Millstone has had to drop its production by half.
As it turns out, this has been happening all summer long, across the country. The nuclear facility that supplies Chicago with electricity, Braidwood, had to get special permission to continue operating after the temperature of water in its cooling pond rose to 102 degrees. Originally, the plant had permission to run as long as the temperature of the cooling pond remained below 98 degrees, in 2000 that limit was raised to 100 degrees.
On top of all the other hazards of nuclear, we now have this. Changing the rules (getting permission to use hotter water) does not make the problem go away. Using water that is warmer than design calls for means that cooling is less effective and output needs to go down so that overheating and damage to core components does not happen. Nuclear plants that are using hotter water to cool their plants will run less efficiently and supply less power.
This is not the first time that we have been here. There were instances in 2010 as well as 1988. And, according to Gregg Levine the problem is growing. A study published in Nature Climate Change predicted continued warming and spreading drought conditions would significantly reduce thermoelectric output. The Nature Climate Change study states that higher water temperatures and reduced river flows in Europe and the United States in recent years have resulted in reduced production, or temporary shutdown, of several thermoelectric power plants, resulting in increased electricity prices and raising concerns about future energy security in a changing climate. Additionally, the study projects further disruption to supply, with a likely decrease in generating capacity of between 6-19% in Europe and 4-16% in the United States due to lack of cooling water. The likelihood of extreme (>90%) reductions in generation will increase by a factor of three.
The study is considering all thermoelectric sources, not just nuclear, but the decrease in efficiency applies across the board. And, when it comes to nuclear power, as global temperatures continue to rise and water levels in rivers and lakes continue to drop, an even more disconcerting threat emerges. Gregg Levine reminds us that “when a coal plant is forced to shut down because of a lack of cool intake water, it can, in short order, basically get turned off. With no coal burning, the cooling needs of the facility quickly downgrade to zero. An nuclear reactor, however, is never really off. Even when a nuclear reactor is not producing electricity, it still needs cooling. They still need a power source to make that cooling happen, and they still need a coolant, which means water. Water that is increasingly growing too warm or too scarce…” Sadly, the nuke folks have had these predictions on hand for, at minimum, the past 20 years. And, rather than upgrade, redesign plants or just plain transition away from nukes, the push has been to request license extensions.
As Gregg Levine points out, “Rather than invest the money in technologies that actually thrive during the long, hot days of summer, rather than invest in improved efficiency and conservation programs that would both create jobs and decrease electrical demand (and carbon emissions), rather than seizing the moment, making, as it were, hay while the sun shines, it seems the US will choose to bury its head in the sand and call it shade.” But we know, if the people lead, the leaders will follow. And that is what all of you are doing, each time you install solar, wind or water, you are making the sustainable, responsible choice that will lighten the load on the planet while still providing reliable, safe and green energy.