Climate Change

Published on August 18th, 2012 | by Nicholas Brown


Global Warming May Affect Existing Nuclear Power Plants

August 18th, 2012 by  

At a twin-unit nuclear power plant in northeastern Illinois, the weather recently became so hot that the temperature of the cooling pond of the plant exceeded the level permitted, at 102 degrees.

The permitted level was originally 98 degrees, and has been increased to 100 degrees.

The cooling pond is a 2,500-acre (10-square-km) lake in a former strip-mine.

In the situation above, special permission was given to the power plant operators to allow it to continue operation despite the abnormality.

The pond absorbs heat from the power plant to help keep it cool. This is due to the fact that the hotter the weather is, the more saturated the air becomes with heat, and this decreases the amount of heat the air will absorb from the pond.

Global warming causes average global temperatures to increase very slowly and gradually, however, according to Craig Nesbit: “I’m not a climatologist. But clearly the calculations when the plant was first operated in 1986 are not what is sufficient today, not all the time.”

This is apparently a new problem which the plant’s pond didn’t have in the 1980s, and this does suggest that the average temperature of the plant’s location has increased. Temperatures at night has been in the 90s, which is too hot to enable the pond to cool off. The pond absorbs heat from the plant, then radiates that heat into the surrounding air.

Another implication that climate change may have for nuclear power plants is drought. Nuclear power plants require a large amount of water to stay cool, and drought causes water shortages. The states of Georgia and Alabama could be affected by this in the future.

Image: nuclear power plant in Illinois via Shutterstock

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About the Author

writes on CleanTechnica, Gas2, Kleef&Co, and Green Building Elements. He has a keen interest in physics-intensive topics such as electricity generation, refrigeration and air conditioning technology, energy storage, and geography. His website is:

  • Wind and Solar do not require significant amounts of water for cooling to generate power. Yet another advantage over nuclear. The price of Wind and Solar continue to drop while the prices for Nuclear continue to climb.

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  • Global climate change also caused a nuclear power plant in CT to be shut down — the ocean water was ~6F too warm for it to be cooled.

    • Ronald Brak

      Yeah, we’ve had problems with coastal coal plants in Australia too.

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  • This means that the capacity factor will decrease continually for those nuclear plants which are not located at coastlines.

    One of the great advantages of nuclear (>90% capacity factor) will be gone and nuclear power plants will essentially become intermittent (when heat waves occur) as we go ahead with global warming.

    Either this, or significant new investment will be needed to keep those nuclear plants in operation (e.g.: extending that artificial pond or build a new pond).

    Even in medium term (~10 years) it may become cheaper to develop storage and deploy renewable generation.

    • Ronald Brak

      In parts of Australia we appear to be either at or close to the break even point for storage for point of use solar, as there can be a 17 cent difference between what a household can buy electricity from the grid for and what they can sell it to the grid for. But that’s not going to damage the prospects of nuclear power here as nuclear has no prospects in Australia.

  • Yes as thing heat up, we will see more and more coal and nuclear plants forced into a temporary shut down. We have already seen plants closed along rivers because the water became to hot. The reason this plant used the cooling pond was to avoid that restriction. But now their pond is over heating. So again those plants never have in the past, do not now, and never will in the future run 24/7/365.

  • This is an important issue that the Nuclear advocates never mention when touting all the positives (claimed) of nuclear energy. Water is becoming a serious issue all over the planet and these concerns need to be factored into any formula concerning the future of electrical generation.
    I’ll say it again…Nuclear Energy is a fire that we should be wary of playing with regardless of it’s CO2 profile.
    Good post Nicholas.

    • Hi Edward,

      Nuclear power actually has a pretty big carbon footprint — about 2/3’s to 3/4’s of coal. You have to count ALL the energy required to mine uranium, transport it, refine it, process it into fuel rods, and building the plant itself, servicing and maintaining the plant, storing the spent fuel rods, building the VERY long term storage, etc. etc.

      Uranium is quite limited in supply — if we used nuclear power for all our electricity, the uranium supply would run out in a decade or so.

      Renewable energy is the only way we can go. And we have a sustainable abundance of renewable energy.


      • Ronald Brak

        Uranium currently costs about $110 a kilogram. So even if the entire price of uranium was spent on buying coal and then burning it, CO2 emissions would be small relative to the energy it would release if used in a reactor.

      • Bill_Woods

        You’re mistaken; nuclear power’s footprint — like that of wind and solar — is a small fraction of coal’s. Tens of grams per kW-h vs ~900.

        And the supply depends on the cost. Currently uranium costs ~0.3¢/kW-h. Double or triple the price, and the supply goes up exponentially.

        • Your number is way too low. Mining uranium is energy intensive. Transporting the uranium, and refining it, then enriching it, then processing it into fuel rods, and all the other materials that are used to make the fuel rods, must all be counted. Building the nuclear plant takes lot and lots of concrete, and concrete takes LOTS of energy to make, and lots of steel, and lots of wiring and lots of computers. A plant is only usable for about 40-60 years — and then it has to be taken apart and disposed of.

          The fuel rods are used for 3-6 years and then they have to cooled for about 10 years in pools of water, and that water has to be pumped continuously. Then huge dry casks have to be constructed (taking more steel and concrete) and then the fuel rods have to be stored for many centuries — or many millenniums until they are safe.

          This process takes far more carbon overhead than building ind turbines, or even solar photovoltaic panels. And uranium is a finite resource — we will run out of it at some point.

          Nuclear power is a carbon intensive energy source, and it is a very silly way to boil water. Surely we can switch over to solar heat with molten salt storage and avoid the radiation and this stupid and short-sighted temporary energy source?

          Renewable energy is in sustainable abundance. The next generation of wind turbines, PV panels, wave power systems, tidal power systems, and biomass systems can be built using energy fro today’s renewable energy.


          • Bill_Woods

            You’re failing to appreciate how much energy there is in a ton of uranium. Here’s what 110 TW-h of spent fuel looks like:
            That’s enough to supply Australia’s demand for six months.

            From the 19 most reliable assessments, Sovacool found that estimates of total lifecycle carbon emissions ranged from 1.4 grammes of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (gCO2e/kWh) of electricity produced up to 288 gCO2e/kWh. Sovacool believes the mean of 66 gCO2e/kWh to be a reasonable approximation.
            The largest source of carbon emissions, accounting for 38 per cent of the average total, is the “frontend” of the fuel cycle, which includes mining and milling uranium ore, and the relatively energy-intensive conversion and enrichment process, which boosts the level of uranium-235 in the fuel to useable levels. Construction (12 per cent), operation (17 per cent largely because of backup generators using fossil fuels during downtime), fuel processing and waste disposal (14 per cent) and decommissioning (18 per cent) make up the total mean emissions.
            According to Sovacool’s analysis, nuclear power, at 66 gCO2e/kWh emissions is well below scrubbed coal-fired plants, which emit 960  gCO2e/kWh, and natural gas-fired plants, at 443 gCO2e/kWh.


      • Thanks Neil,
        We are on the same page. I’m well aware of Nuclear’s CO2 profile. My comment was aimed at those who think that Nuclear is “clean” where CO2 is concerned. Even if that were true Nuclear Energy is, in my estimation, the least desirable of all. At least coal won’t be able to kill in several million years like uranium will but coal has still “gotta go”….

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