Guest post by Chris Agass
The drought that has plagued the US this year has filled the news headlines for a number of predictable reasons, but somewhat lesser known has been its impact on electricity generation.
Record temperatures and drought conditions have afflicted power stations that require cool water to produce electricity – particularly nuclear ones – with a reactor in Connecticut forced to close down last weekend.
According to National Geographic, one of the two nuclear reactors at Millstone Power Station near New London, Connecticut, was closed when temperatures in Long Island Sound, the source of the facility’s cooling water, reached their highest sustained levels since the facility began monitoring in 1971. No word has yet been given on when the reactor would re-open.
Ramifications of the drought such as low crop yields and rising food prices have been widely reported, but as Barbara Carney of the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Morgantown, West Virginia told New Scientist, power plants are often a hidden victim of drought, because they are totally dependent on water cooling and thus susceptible to heat waves and the effects this has in terms of water temperature and water shortages.
New Scientist reported that the average nuclear plant requires far more water to cool its turbines than other power plants. Nuclear plants require more than 2,000 litres of water per megawatt per hour for cooling. In contrast, coal or natural gas plants need, on average, only 1,890 and 719 litres respectively to produce the same amount of energy.
As water levels in the rivers that cool them have sunk too low the power plant – already overworked from the heat – is not able to acquire enough water. In addition, if the cooling water discharged from a plant raises river temperatures above certain thresholds, environmental regulations require the plant to shut down.
According to Natural News, a second nuclear power plant in Illinois was forced to attain special clearance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in July to pump additional water into its cooling pond, which was evaporating and in danger of heating to levels beyond those allowed by its permit.
With the closure of the San Onofre nuclear plant in California, due to a radioactive leak, as reported on in China Dialogue, the news of drought-affected power plants will certainly not be well received by the US nuclear power industry.