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Nuclear power no answer for climate change?

Nuclear energy is often touted as a solution to curbing climate change because it produces fewer greenhouse gases than burning fossil fuels. Ironically, however, some changes wrought by climate change may make operating nuclear power plants a nonstarter, two researchers conclude in Energy Policy.

“Nuclear power is not and will not be a suitable mitigation measure,” argue Natalie Kopytko of the University of York in the U.K. and John Perkins of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. One key reason, they say, is water. “Nuclear reactors require enormous amounts of water to cool or condense the coolant which transfers heat from the core to the turbines and cools the reactor core,” they write. “This is why nuclear power plants are located near substantial amounts of water: the ocean, large lakes, and big rivers. If climate change affects the temperature, quality, or quantity of water, then existing nuclear power plants may be adversely affected.”

Rising sea levels, for example, could hamper the operation of atomic plants in coastal areas, particularly if more severe storms flood or erode reactor sites. In the U.S., the researchers examined 15 reactors sited within 3.2 kilometers of the Atlantic or Pacific. Many “are not prepared for the issues that will arise due to climate change,” they concluded.

Hotter summers could also force inland reactors to shut down or alter operations in ways that raise costs or threaten surrounding ecosystems, they note. When heat waves hit Europe in 2003 and 2006, for example, governments gave nuclear plants special “thermal pollution” permits to release warmed-up cooling waters into already heat-stressed rivers. And some European reactors were unprepared for flooding in 1999 and 2003, they note, suggesting they could struggle if such floods become more common in a warmer world.

Although engineers probably could build new plants that address these problems and use less water, that “will likely be too expensive at many locations,” the authors conclude. So they argue that, at least in the short term, new nukes aren’t really a way out of the climate dilemma.

– David Malakoff

Kopytko, N. and J. Perkins. 2011. Climate change, nuclear power, and the adaptation-mitigation dilemma. Energy Policy doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2010.09.046.

Image: www.cartoonstock.com

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2 Comments

  • James Aach September 1, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    I would note that much of the water use in nuclear plants is for the same function as in conventional fossil fuel plants (… even ones with CO2 sequestration). There are good and bad sides to nuclear, but I wouldn’t think water-management issues are exclusive to it.

    I’d like to point out a free resource that can provide an insider’s take on nuclear plants and how an unpleasant event at an atomic fun factory might unfold. “Rad Decision” is a novel available online free (no adverts, no sponsors). The event depicted is a lot like Fukushima, oddly enough. Just Google the title. The author has worked in the US nuclear industry for over 20 years and portrays the good and bad of this energy source. (Plenty of both.) Most “nuclear experts” in the media have never actually worked at a power plant. Unfortunately, Rad Decision’s media presence is rather limited, but those readers who have found it have enjoyed the story and learned something along the way.

    We’ll make better decisions about our energy future if we first understand our energy present.
    Conserving energy should be the first, second and third priority in any program. The cheapest, safest, most enviornmentally friendly energy is that which we don’t use.

    Reply

  • Erik Flodin October 1, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    This article, Nuclear Power, No Answer For Climate Change, is quite misleading. The article begins stating that nuclear power plants produce fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuel plants. Nuclear power plants produce NO GREENHOUSE gases.

    It then continues to state that nuclear power plants consume tremendous amounts of water. The statement is true, but it is also true for ALL electrical production steam plants, whether they are powered by coal nuclear fuel, natural gas, etc.

    When I can identify these misleading statements about a technology that I understand, how can I believe other articles you publish? Why should I subscribe to this misinformation?

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