Nuclear Power Equals Clean Water?

Over the weekend, State Rep. Chuck DeVore announced that he’s proposing a plan that would recommission one of the nuclear reactors at San Onofre and tie it to a new desalination plant that would provide a new source of fresh water for a thirsy Southern California economy. About 20 percent of the new reactor would power desalination efforts.

Chuck is a huge proponent of nuclear power and is trying to overturn California’s ban on constructing new nuclear plants.  And by attaching a desalination plant to his bill, its a DeVore Two-fer.

I recall how my son sent packets of powdered lemonade to my brother-in-law, who was in Kuwait for the first Gulf War, because our soliders drank desalinated water. The Lemonade powder made the water drinkable because we were told “it tasted terrible.”  Chuck claims advances in technology have made the water taste good and its “more pure,” whatever that means.

A quick search on the Internet came up with a taste test conducted by a TV reporter in Singapore. The water sample from desalination plants was “drinkable if you’re thirsty enough” but the residents actually prefered the taste of waste water that had been treated and purified.

The second obvious problem with desalination is that its takes huge amounts of energy to remove salt from water.  The federal government reports that it can cost three to five times the amount to desalinate water compared to obtaining water via more traditional means.

Writing in the journal LiveScience, Michael Schirber says: 

But even with membranes, large amounts of energy are needed to generate the high pressure that forces the water through the filter. Current methods require about 14 kilowatt-hours of energy to produce 1,000 gallons of desalinated seawater.

A typical American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water a day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The entire country consumes about 323 billion gallons per day of surface water and another 84.5 billion gallons of ground water.

If half of this water came from desalination, the United States would need more than 100 extra electric power plants, each with a gigawatt of capacity.

I don’t think desalinated water is a bad idea, per se; I think if used for everything but human consumption, desalination can play a positive role in agriculture, manufacturing and a host of other uses.  I am just not interested in drinking it.

Then, there’s that nasty problem with nuclear waste.  This from the website   

Nuclear energy is problematic at each stage of its cycle:

1. Uranium mining. Uranium is extracted from underground and open pit mines. For every ton of uranium oxide produced, thousands of tons of wastes, or tailings, are left behind. Often the tailings are simply dumped on the land near the mine and left to the effects of the elements. Wind carries radon gas and radioactive dust from these tailings for many miles. Contaminated rainwater enters the soil, the watershed, and, eventually, the food chain, endangering the health of people, animals, and the planet. Uranium mining on indigenous and tribal peoples’ lands has devastated local communities and environments in North America, Australia, Africa, and Asia.

2. Enrichment. After mining the uranium mineral is refined to uranium oxide, called yellowcake. This natural uranium is processed and then enriched. Industrial processes enrich uranium by concentrating the amount of its fissile isotopes to 3% or more for use as reactor fuel. Uranium can be further enriched for use in nuclear weapon—the technology used to enrich uranium to 3% is the same as is used to enrich it to 20%, the level necessary for use in a nuclear weapon.

3. Reprocessing. Reprocessing is a chemical reaction that separates plutonium and uranium from fuel which has been irradiated in reactors. The plutonium is important for weapons production, while the uranium is basically a byproduct that can be recycled as fuel. Because reprocessing is also part of the civilian nuclear fuel cycle, reprocessing is a key link between civilian nuclear power and nuclear weapons production. Thus, the existence of a reprocessing plant is what gives a country the ability to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Four-fifths of the plutonium in the world today has been produced by commercial nuclear power reactors. This spread of plutonium through nuclear power has increased the number of potential nuclear weapons states to 46. The five declared nuclear weapons nations—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—are only one-ninth of the real “nuclear club”. (Jan Thomas et al, Safe Energy Handbook, Plutonium Free Future, Santa Barbara, CA: INOCHI, 1997.)

4. Radioactive waste. By the year 2000, the nuclear industry had created 201,000 tons of highly radioactive irradiated (used) fuel rods. Waste from nuclear energy production must be safely and securely stored for between 10,000 years and 240,000 years in order to prevent health and environmental disasters from radioactive contamination. None of the 44 countries with nuclear reactors has a solution to the waste problem. The wastes are either kept in “temporary”, above-ground storage facilities or buried in shallow pits. Wastes have been dumped directly into the ground, lakes and oceans of the world. A 2003 MIT study projected that, if the world expands its nuclear energy production to 1,000 gigawatts by 2050 (an increase of 2% per year), a new storage facility equal to the currently planned capacity of Yucca Mountain would have to be created somewhere in the world about every three to four years to permanently store the spent nuclear fuel. (John Deutch and Ernest J. Moniz et al, The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study, Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003.)

I still haven’t heard what Chuck’s plan is for storing/disposing of radication waste whcih will need to be stored 10,000 to 240,000 years before its no longer leathal.  So would that in mind, wouldn’t it be more cost efficiently in the long run to support alterantive and reneweable sources of enegry even if they are much costlier to the economy now?  Pay now or pay later?