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The Achilles Heel of Nuclear Power

No, I don’t mean cost, safety, waste, or proliferation — though those are all serious problems. I mean the Achilles heel of nuclear power in the context of climate change: water.

Climate change means water shortages in many places and hotter water everywhere. Both are big problems for nukes.

… nuclear power is the most water-hungry of all energy sources, with a single reactor consuming 35–65 million litres of water each day.

The Australians, stuck in a once-in-a-1000-years drought, understandably worry about this a lot:

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.

Hotter water is another serious worry:

Nuclear power “requires great amounts of cool water to keep reactors operating at safe temperatures. That is worrying if the rivers and reservoirs which many power plants rely on for water are hot or depleted because of steadily rising air temperatures,” noted the International Herald Tribune earlier this year.

During the extreme heat of 2003 in France, 17 nuclear reactors operated at reduced capacity or were turned off.

Patrice Lambert de Diesbach, an energy analyst at CM-CIC Securities in Paris, said hot summers were the problem. “We are up against the maximum amount of hot water that can be released into rivers,” Diesbach said. “Unfortunately the situation is only going to get worse.”

Indeed, if we stay on our current emissions trajectory, more than half of European summers will be hotter than 2003 within the next four decades, according to a 2004 study in Nature by British scientists from Oxford University and the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. By the end of the century, “2003 would be classed as an anomalously cold summer relative to the new climate,” the study notes.

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I think that nuclear power could realistically provide no more than one “wedge” of the 10 or more wedge-sized climate solutions we need to avoid climate catastrophe. And if we don’t avoid catastrophe, nuclear may find itself fizzling out as an energy strategy.