This morning on NPR, Morning Edition ran a feature on France's nuclear reactor fleet and how about a third of those reactors had to cut power during the European heat wave of 2003.
While I'm not going to quibble with the basic premise of the piece, there are a number of facts that NPR left out that taken together, fail to show the entire picture.
The situation described in France and occurring right now at Browns Ferry here in the U.S. is not unique to nuclear reactors, it's something that can affect any power plant that uses the steam cycle -- and that's about 80% of our current generating capacity.
For example, three coal plants in Canada had to go off line recently for just the same reason.
We also need to keep in mind that this is not an operating problem, rather, utilities are simply acting as responsible stewards of the environment. As our CEO Skip Bowman put it in a note to us here at NEI this morning:
Commercial reactors typically operate under licenses/agreements that limit the temperature of the water returning to the river that they draw from. As the rivers heat up due to hot weather, they have to cut back on power and/or shutdown to avoid hitting the limit on water temps returning to the river. It is NOT that they "have trouble operating". There is a hit on overall thermal efficiency as inlet water temps go up, but it is lost in the shuffle, and is not why plants must scale back. They are simply being good environmental stewards and meeting their agreed-upon outlet limits.For more on this, here's a post from my former NEI colleague Lisa Stiles from two Summers ago.
Why are we so concerned about stories like this one? Because anti-nuclear activists like to regularly regurgitate the story as proof that nuclear energy can't possibly contribute to helping constrain the emission of greenhouse gases in the face of climate change.
But as we saw just last week, at the peak of the American Summer, U.S. nuclear plants were running as close to 100% of capacity as practically possible.
As for the European heat wave of 2003, I think the following statement from Dr. Michael Ivanco, Society of Professional Engineers and Associates of Mississauga, Ontario taken from a story in the Hamilton Spectator puts it in the right perspective:
While water shortages have caused some thermo-electric plants to scale back production, it is important to note that they have not been required to shut down.As was the case during the California heat wave of 2006. By contrast, for the month of July 2006, according to my colleague David Bradish, all of the state's four nuclear reactors were running at above 100% capacity.
During the heat wave that hit Europe in the summer of 2003, by contrast, the contribution of wind-generated electricity to the electrical grids was virtually zero, since the wind did not blow.
Dr. Ivanco continues:
While the overall output of nuclear plants may vary slightly due to other weather conditions, it will not drop to zero as some renewable sources do.Like building a cooling tower to support possible new reactors at North Anna in Virginia.
The single largest nuclear facility in North America is in the middle of the desert in Arizona and it does not suffer from any drought-related setbacks, simply because water conservation was built into its design.
There is no technical reason preventing future plants from being built to minimize water usage.
To wrap things up, I'll hand it back over to Lisa Stiles, who reminded us that while temperatures might be high now, it won't be long before the mercury drops again:
And consider the other extreme. When the Northeast U.S. gets hit with several blizzards and the trains carrying fuel can't get through (it happened a few years ago) and natural gas prices are through the roof, and all the while the nukes are humming along better than ever, don't try to tell me that solar, wind, corn and biomass are going to save the day. Just like nuclear power, they all have their place in a diverse energy portfolio, they all have their pros and cons, but none alone is the answer to our energy and environmental problems.Something to keep in mind.