Nuclear Power Generation: High Demands for Cooling Water Use

by Cameron Bernhardt

Nuclear power is often praised for its potential to replace carbon-intensive energy sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity and power generation. Although nuclear power may offer a promising future in this regard, it is likely to place stresses on the environment in other ways, namely through increased demands on water for cooling and space for waste disposal. Byers et al. (2014) tested six decarbonization pathways to estimate current water use in the UK electricity sector and project water use to 2050 in the UK. The study observed the water use associated with cooling for all varieties of thermoelectric power plants, but nuclear power accounts for over 20 percent of the UK’s electricity mix and is likely to share a large stake in the future of the UK’s power mix. Byers et al. concluded that the pathways with the highest projected proportion of nuclear generation resulted in tidal and coastal water abstraction that exceeded current levels by up to six times. This finding suggests that nuclear power may not be as viable a future energy source as previously thought, especially in areas where water resources are relatively scarce. It seems that the UK should extend its investigations into the merits of nuclear power, and similar studies may be warranted to assess the impacts of nuclear generation in other countries.

The study also emphasizes two related points that could be extrapolated to other scenarios. The first is that, despite the UK’s relatively high access to seawater, evidence from the study indicates some scarcity of viable sites for large nuclear plants “if negative environmental impacts are to be avoided.” This reality may be due to the UK’s high reliance on freshwater as a thermoelectric cooling source. However, it was also found that significant reductions in freshwater demand are feasible through greater “hybrid cooling,” which, although more costly and carbon-intensive, would increase the security of water supply. The study makes it clear that high levels of nuclear power generation create environmental risks related to water consumption that will require an analysis of trade-offs between costs, emissions, and the environment.

Byers, E. A., Hall, J. W., Amezaga, J. M., 2014. Electricity generation and cooling water use: UK pathways to 2050. Global Environmental Change 25, 16-30.

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