Whether climate change is a good
or bad thing is open to debate, but change indeed appears to be happening
in the Southeast U.S., which is being hit
with record droughts. These droughts turned neighbors Florida and
Georgia against each other in Federal courts over water rights for the water
flowing into the Everglades. It also is having some startling
consequences on one major U.S. alternative energy source.
Nuclear power is only recently gaining
newfound respect in the U.S. and abroad, with the first
application for a new nuclear plant in 30 years filed late last year and Canada
pushing ahead to restart one of its major research reactors after criticism
on government inactivity. Despite these modest gains nuclear remains much
maligned among the U.S. public and still has yet to win broad support.
Residents in the Southeast may soon be learning, though, that they didn't know
what they had till it was gone, as the drought
threatens to cripple the southeast nuclear industry and send energy costs in
some areas skyrocketing.
Water is a key part of the process of generating nuclear energy. It is
used to cool the reactor core and to create the steam which is used to drive
turbines to convert the heat energy from the reactions into mechanical and finally
Plants tend to fall into two categories. The first have tall cooling
towers that discharge most of the water as steam, which is lost into the
atmosphere. Others lack the tall cooling towers and exhaust hot water
into reservoirs; however they are limited by environmental regulations as to
how much hot water they can purge. These restrictions are due to the fact
that the water is so hot it can easily kill fish and local plants.
Exhausting heated water does recycle a small portion of the used water back
into reservoirs, but much of the water still evaporates as it exits steaming
Spokeswoman Julie Hahn for Progress Energy Inc., which operates four reactors
in the drought zone, explains the massive water needs of the energy producing
giants. She says one Progress reactor, the Harris reactor, intakes 33
million gallons a day, with 17 million gallons lost to evaporation within its
megatonic cooling towers. Duke Energy Corp.'s McGuire nuclear plant
consumes more than 1 billion gallons a day, though a lesser percentage is lost
to evaporation than with the Harris reactor.
The situation has gotten extreme, and numerous plants have been shut down, are
preparing to temporarily shut down, or are throttling back
production. Nearly a fourth of the nuclear
reactors in the U.S., 24 out of 104, are in drought afflicted
regions. Nearly all, 22 of these 24, rely on lakes and rivers for their
water needs. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. government
body which regulates the nuclear power industry, has set minimum allowable
water levels for these water sources. Most of the water sources are
approaching these minimum levels. Falling below means a government
mandated plant closure.
Even if the government relaxes its restrictions, the water levels are
forecasted to drop below the level of the intake pipes for many of these
plants. At other plants, the water is becoming too hot under the sun and
from stored up heat to be used for cooling purposes.
Robert Yanity, a spokesman for South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. states
grimly, "If water levels get to a certain point, we'll have to power it
down or go off line."
There is no easy answer. The intake pipes are large and often up to a
mile long and concrete and extending them would require months of effort and an
overhaul of the plants pumping systems and an unpleasant price tag of millions
of dollars. And the pipes could only dip so deep before they started
sucking up sediment and organic materials, leading to blockages.
The shortage affects about 3 million customers in parts of the Southeast who
get their power solely from nuclear energy. Even more people will likely
be affected as the quasi-governmental Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) relies
on 30 percent nuclear power to fuel the energy needs of its 8.7 million
The plants need over a foot in rainfall over the next month to stay in
business, but there is no relief forecasted in site. Donna Lisenby,
executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper environmental group that tracks
conditions Lake Norman and other lakes along the 225-mile Catawba River system,
bemoans, "If we don't get at least 10 to 15 inches of rainfall in January,
February and March, lake levels could be lower in the fall of 2008 than they
were in 2007 -- and that could be a disaster."
The Progress Energy Harris plant is currently at 218.5 feet, 3.5 feet above the
legal limit. Progress officials say if the water dips below the limit,
they will be forced to close and buy power from other sources. Duke's
McGuire nuclear plant's lake dropped 4.5 feet since last year and only needs to
drop one more foot to be below the legal limit, mandating closure.
The TVA reactor at Browns Ferry in Alabama already shut down once in August 16,
2007 due to the discharged coolant being too hot. As reservoir
temperatures rise, this is expected to become a much more regular occurrence.
An additional call for concern was raised by David Lochbaum, nuclear project
safety director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, who argues that most of
the plants can't take the wear and tear of repeated shut-downs and start-ups.
So aside from forcing many Americans to adopt less clean source of energy, what
exactly will these possible shutdown potentially cost them? Daniele
Seitz, an energy analyst with New York-based Dahlman Rose & Co states,
"Currently, nuclear power costs between $5 to $7 to produce a megawatt
hour. It would cost 10 times that amount that if you had to buy
replacement power -- especially during the summer."
Nuclear power, while unappreciated, provides cheap alternative energy
power. With climate change threatening to shut down many of the reactors
in the Southeast, many people may start to realize how great nuclear power
really was when faced with the harsh reality of when it’s gone.