Monthly Archives: March 2015

California’s Water Emergency – A Solution Worth Considering

by the TESV folks in California

When considering options for energy production in drought stricken geographies like California, nuclear energy plants such as The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), should be highlighted for the role they can play in meeting our energy needs, while not consuming an abundance of freshwater resources. During its operation, SONGS conserved approximately 126,548 gallons of freshwater per hour and produced enough energy to desalinate 668 trillion gallons of water a year. (2 million acre-feet.)

Ninety percent of the electricity produced in the United States comes from fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, which require large quantities of water for cooling steam (that is used to spin turbines that generate electricity) back to water that can be reused in the electricity generation process. Each type of power plant requires different amounts of water for cooling. For example, once-through cooling systems (such as the one used at SONGS) for nuclear power plants consume 400 gallons/MWh, coal power plants consume 300 gallons/MWh, and natural gas power plants consume 100 gallons/MWh. Once-through systems most commonly use freshwater from rivers, lakes, or aquifers, thus consuming water that could be used for agriculture, industry, and residential consumption. However, some power plants built near the ocean, like the SONGS, incorporate seawater into their once-through cooling system and require very little freshwater, leaving valuable water resources available for other purposes.

During its operation, SONGS produced 19% of the power used by Southern California Edison customers, supplying power to large portions of Southern California. Operating at full capacity from 1984-2011, units 2 and 3 of SONGS had a gross capacity of 1,127 MW and supplied on average 7,592 GWh of electricity a year and required the use of very little freshwater resources. The negative impacts of SONGS closure on the environment is already being realized. Carbon dioxide emissions from California’s power generation facilities increased from 30.7 million tons in 2011 to 41.6 million tons in 2012 in part due to the early closure of SONGS. Furthermore, millions of gallons of water that could be used for a multitude of other purposes have been used in fossil fuel energy production processes to replace the electricity once produced by SONGS. During its operation, SONGS conserved approximately 126,548 gallons of freshwater per hour (see calculations and assumptions below) that would have been used to produce the same amount of energy from other sources.

Furthermore the energy produced by SONGS could have been used in other ways to address water scarcity issues in California. For example, the average energy supplied through SONGS could have desalinated 668 trillion gallons of water a year, (2 million acre-feet) assuming it takes 3kWh to desalinate one cubic meter of water. That is enough water produced each year to supply San Diego’s population of over 3 million people with 119 gallons of freshwater (San Diego County’s daily average per capita) every day for five years.

Producing water locally would have also saved a considerable amount of energy that is required to pump water from reservoirs to Southern California. It requires on average 2908 kWh of energy to supply Southern California with one acre-foot (326,700 gallons) of water. Therefore during an average year, SONGS could have desalinated enough water locally, saving 5948 GWh of energy a year that would otherwise be required to pump water to Southern California.

Freshwater Conservation Calculations and Assumptions

Assuming the majority of the energy produced at SONGS would be used by Southern California Edison (SCE) customers, SCE’s energy mix can be used to determine what proportion of energy sources would be needed to make up for the loss of 7592.9 GWh of electricity SONGS supplied on average each year.

 SCE Energy Mix for 2006 (the most recent energy mix data):

  • Natural Gas: 54%

  • Coal: 8%

  • Nuclear: 17%

  • Large Hydro: 5%

  • Renewables: 16%

If energy production was ramped up proportionally across the energy mix of the SCE, each energy source would need to produce the following additional energy:

  • Natural Gas: 4,100.166 GWh (54% of 7,592.9)

  • Coal: 607.432 GWh (8% of 7,592.9)

  • Nuclear: 1290.793.59 GWh (17% of 7,592.9)

  • Large Hydro: 379.645 GWh (5% of 7,592.9)

  • Renewables: 1214.864 GWh (16% of 7,592.9)

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, natural gas, coal, and nuclear consume the following amount of freshwater to produce electricity:

  • Natural Gas: 100 gallons MWh

  • Coal: 300 gallons MWh

  • Nuclear: 400 gallons MWh

Which would result in the following freshwater consumption a year:

  • Natural Gas: 410,016,600 gallons (4,100,166 MWh * 100 gallons MWh)

  • Coal: 60,743,200 gallons (607,432 MWh  * 300 gallons MWh)

  • Nuclear: 129,079,300 gallons (1,290,794 MWh * 400 gallons MWh)

  • Total: 1,108,563,400 gallons

Therefore during its operation in 2006, SONGS conserved 1,108,563,400 gallons of freshwater a year or 126,548 gallons of water an hour, that would have otherwise been used by other power generation processes to produce the same amount of energy.

So if you’re thinking that San Onofre Nuclear Plant should not have been closed then you get it.

Perception Versus Reality

If we try to stay current with what’s going on in the world we find ourselves constantly faced with sorting out how others often fail to see the reality of things. But of course, depending on your sources, getting to the truth is harder because in the explosion of information there is deluge of misinformation available. Finding the full truth can set you free. I will limit my writing to my own personal experiences.

A big eye opener, I had not too long ago, was in a Facebook chat with a passionate young man who called himself a human rights activist. I was trying to persuade him that Ontario’s energy bills were higher because of subsidies for renewables such as wind and solar. He was clearly very smart and articulate. Still, he disagreed.

He wanted to inform me that nuclear energy was bad because the uranium mining it required was doing harm to the environment. His take on it was that nuclear power was run by the big bad corporations and that they were interested in profits at the expense of the people, especially the first nations people. I could not help but wonder about the enormous benefit Ontario experiences as a result of our nuclear plants. The good that a nuclear plant does far outweighs the harm the mining does.

But after digging more into the subject I discovered that mines and power plants have consequences and their proximity to valued natural habitat going back just 25 years has a dark history with regard to the wishes of the First Nations people. Consultation has been missing from the process of establishing mining and power plant operations.

As recent as 50 years ago consultation with First Nations, Inuit and Métis regarding mining activities was nonexistent. There has been a significant improvement and in recent years there are clear indications from Ontario Power Group (OPG) that dialogue has improved. But what’s interesting is that the only active uranium mine currently in Canada is in Saskatchewan. The world’s biggest uranium mines are in Kazahkstan, Canada and Australia. Canada’s worst health impacts to the indigenous people go back to the 1930s right up to 1962 in Deline, Northwest Territories.

It is a violation when you show up in someones backyard uninvited. It is invasive when you start digging without permission and without any attempt to educate the people about the dangers or benefits. All of that has changed and the rules were laid out in 1995. Now that protocols have been established and consultation has been started what needs to be communicated more often is that the benefits of uranium mining and nuclear energy far outweigh the costs. That means economically, environmentally and humanely. The risks may be small but when the perception of the risks are high then dialogue is needed and the First Nations groups were not getting that information or communication. Who handles marketing for the nuclear industry?

From the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) website they say (see footnote pdf):

“…Uranium exploration poses the same low risks to public health or the environment, as any exploration methods (such as drilling small core samples). It does not significantly modify the natural environment. Uranium exploration presents a very low risk of increasing radiation or radon exposure to the public and to the environment…”

“…The CNSC ensures streams, lakes and rivers downstream of uranium mining projects are safe for people, plants, fish and other animals…”

“…The CNSC assesses monitors and tracks licensees’ environmental performance to verify that releases to the environment are not harmful and are below regulatory limits. Since 1994, an ongoing monitoring study in northern Saskatchewan has assessed the cumulative impacts of radon, radionuclides and heavy metals on the local environment. Results have shown that uranium mines have no effect on radon levels, and that uranium, radium-226, lead-210 and polonium-210 levels in fish were often below detection levels. When measurable, these levels were no different around mine sites when compared to those at both nearby and remote reference sites…”

In recent years Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia have placed moratoriums on uranium mining after investigations into Uranium Mining practices appeared largely based on pressure from human rights groups. These groups demand inquiries and reports are made but typically lack the scientific inquiry and they ignore the properly conducted scientific studies of already existing reports made by the CNSC.

There has been successful antinuclear activity in affecting change. Canada and the US both have their share of opposition to all things nuclear. The majority of cases where restrictions have occurred are due to emotional reactions based on outdated information and antinuclear rhetoric that ignores the successes in upgrades and regulations that apply to all current uranium mining in North America in effect since the 1990s.

Clearly the discussion with the young activist had a positive effect on me. I researched the topic. But I scored a few points too. He agreed that closing down all the coal plants in Ontario was something to be proud about. The point he did not grasp was that nuclear power was the main reason that stopping coal was even possible. He also failed to realize that Ontario would not be able to maintain its low carbon footprint without nuclear plants. He kept throwing at me the line about keeping this sustainable. I tried to explain that wind and solar farms are not sustainable. That was a tough one to crack.

If the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining in the idealistic world of renewable energy lovers what energy source comes to the rescue? Well in Ontario it happens to be natural gas. The same is true for other parts of the world especially where natural gas is easy to come by.

What is interesting is that nuclear power could do it all alone. But to humour the pro-renewable camp let’s try to understand why Europe has had load following reactors and North American reactors don’t. The punitive attitude towards nuclear would never let modifications take place without a massive review process. Consequently we don’t even try for new designs. So, carbon emitting natural gas wins by default because our system is still out of date and bases their decisions on a dogmatic approach to radiation dangers that have been proven to be overly conservative.

In Germany coal is winning that role where they foolishly started shutting down their nuclear reactors. But the hardest part to grasp is that if wind and solar were not part of the strategy to start with you would not need to find energy to replace the momentary losses of wind and solar power. So the perception that a significant risk exists outweighs the facts and decisions are made that have serious consequences economically and environmentally.

I noticed that my adversary and I resorted to our areas of expertise and I eventually realized our agendas had completely different foci and prevented us from winning each other over to our own side. It was clear to me that this individual was more concerned about the rights of individuals than about the best way to save the ecology of the planet. I did have a moment where I got him to recognize that nuclear might have a role in keeping things sustainable. I guess that was an accomplishment.

There was a lesson here. If your adversary calls themselves an activist you better be prepared to anticipate their bias and try to frame any new arguments you have from a perspective that they understand. I realized that my argument should have been that clean water and clean air are human rights and that nuclear energy happens to be one of the best ways to accomplish the goals of keeping the air and water clean.

footnotes:
http://www.nuclearsafety.gc.ca/eng/pdfs/Fact_Sheets/Uranium-Mining-and-Milling-The-Facts-on-a-Well-Regulated-Industry-July-2012-eng.pdf