Grant McDermott bio photo

Grant McDermott

Economics.
Environment.
Data science.

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I've been drowning in work and other stuff lately, so no blog posts. Like everyone else though, I've been watching the unfolding tragedy in Japan and just hope that they manage to contain the radiation from reaching dangerous levels. From the latest news this morning, things don't look particularly good. (On a personal level, I have some friends in Tokyo that have managed to book a flight out so minor relief...)

Amidst all the articles and reports, I spotted this one, Japan's Nuclear Morality Tale, by Brahma Chellaney. I mention it not because it provides the most succinct account of the Fukushima plant accident, but rather because it touches on the specific area of research that forms the backdrop for my master's dissertation... the water-energy nexus. A snippet from Chellaney's article:
All energy generators, including coal- and gas-fired plants, make major demands on water resources. But nuclear power requires even more. Light-water reactors (LWRs) like those at Fukushima, which use water as a primary coolant, produce most of the world’s nuclear power. The huge quantities of local water that LWRs consume for their operations become hot-water outflows, which are pumped back into rivers, lakes, and oceans. 

Because reactors located inland put serious strain on local freshwater resources – including greater damage to plant life and fish – water-stressed countries that are not landlocked try to find suitable seashore sites. But, whether located inland or on a coast, nuclear power is vulnerable to the likely effects of climate change. 

As global warming brings about a rise in average temperatures and ocean levels, inland reactors will increasingly contribute to, and be affected by, water shortages. During the record-breaking 2003 heat wave in France, operations at 17 commercial nuclear reactors had to be scaled back or stopped because of rapidly rising temperatures in rivers and lake. Spain’s reactor at Santa María de Garoña was shut for a week in July 2006 after high temperatures were recorded in the Ebro River. 

Paradoxically, then, the very conditions that made it impossible for the nuclear industry to deliver full power in Europe in 2003 and 2006 created peak demand for electricity, owing to the increased use of air conditioning. 

Indeed, during the 2003 heat wave, Électricité de France, which operates 58 reactors – the majority on ecologically sensitive rivers like the Loire – was compelled to buy power from neighboring countries on the European spot market. The state-owned EDF, which normally exports power, ended up paying 10 times the price of domestic power, incurring a financial cost of €300 million. 

Similarly, although the 2006 European heat wave was less intense, water and heat problems forced Germany, Spain, and France to take some nuclear power plants offline and reduce operations at others. Highlighting the vulnerability of nuclear power to environmental change or extreme-weather patterns, in 2006 plant operators in Western Europe also secured exemptions from regulations that would have prevented them from discharging overheated water into natural ecosystems, affecting fisheries. 

France likes to showcase its nuclear power industry, which supplies 78% of the country’s electricity. But such is the nuclear industry’s water intensity that EDF withdraws up to 19 billion cubic meters of water per year from rivers and lakes, or roughly half of France’s total freshwater consumption. Freshwater scarcity is a growing international challenge, and the vast majority of countries are in no position to approve of such highly water-intensive inland-based energy systems. 

[snip]

The central dilemma of nuclear power in an increasingly water-stressed world is that it is a water guzzler, yet vulnerable to water.
At the risk of sounding dangerously hyperopic in the context of a much nearer humanitarian and economic crisis, I believe that the water-energy nexus will receive growing attention in the years to come. And, at risk of sounding spectacularly self-absorbed in the context of a much wider humanitarian and economic crisis, my own research is currently aimed at quantifying the value of water in generating (thermo)electric power. In particular, I've been looking at how electricity prices have been affected by incidences of water scarcity and high temperatures (such as during the European heat waves referred to above). As intimated in the article, the irony is that many low-carbon energy technologies - e.g. nuclear, hydro - become less efficient in a hotter and drier world.

This, in a nutshell, is a research question that I would like to investigate should I pursue a PhD. What are the strategic decisions facing countries in committing to certain energy technologies, given that they might be subject to inherent vulnerabilities as a result of climate change? (For instance, how economically viable is it for an east African country, or China, to invest in massive hydropower projects, when climate models indicate disruptions to future water supplies.) Of course, there are any number of factors affecting this... from a binding emissions agreements between nations, to regional climate specifics; e.g. some areas stand to get much more rainfall and not less. Still, I think that it is an intriguing strategic question that deserves further exploration...

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Opportunity costs. There are trade-offs involved in anything we do, and particularly when it comes to energy production and the environment. There are no free lunches... although there might be low-hanging fruit!