SOURCE: International Atomic Energy Agency
France relies on nuclear power more than any other country and is held up by advocates of nuclear power as a model for how to generate enough cheap and reliable electricity to sell surpluses abroad while reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
But global warming is exposing France to new risks. There is a less well-known side of nuclear power: it 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.
Governments and the energy industry are just starting to grasp the vulnerabilities of water-hungry power plants. If the complications prove serious in countries where inland sources of water are growing scarce, where seafront nuclear stations are unwelcome or impractical and where alternative cooling technologies are too expensive, it could take the bloom off of nuclear as a source of clean energy and leave it more unclear than ever where sizeable new power supplies might come from.
“We’re going to have to solve the climate-change problem if we’re going to have nuclear power, not the other way around,” said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who is with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“As the climate warms up, nuclear power plants are less able to deliver,” he said.
Officials at Électricité de France have been preparing for a possible rerun of a ferocious heat wave that struck during 2003, the hottest summer on record in France, when temperatures of some rivers rose sharply and a number of reactors had to curtail output or shut down altogether.
The French company operates 58 reactors – the majority on ecologically sensitive rivers like the Loire.
During the extreme heat of 2003 in France, 17 nuclear reactors operated at reduced capacity or were turned off. Électricité de France was forced to buy power from neighboring countries on the open market, where demand drove the price of a megawatt hour.
Finding enough water for nuclear plants “is front and center of everything we will do in the future,” said Craig Nesbit, a spokesman at Exelon, a Chicago-based company operating the largest group of U.S. nuclear plants.
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.”