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Nuclear power: Bad for water, too

A table in Tennessee Statistical Abstracts some years ago showed 82 percent, or more than 8 billion gallons per day of the freshwater taken from our lakes, streams, rivers going to the Tennessee Valley Authority to make electricity.
In drought stricken Georgia in 2007, emergency water curtailment affected many users, but the electricity sector, like TVA the largest user there, was “guzzling [the] state’s water.”
For feeding power plants’ water addiction, the Atlanta Journal Constitution noted, the utilities sector “always comes first in the pecking order.”
Some reports by the Union of Concerned Scientists draw attention to more energy-and-water collisions happening now, across the country.
The growing population, changing climate with droughts and heat waves, and high water withdrawal for electricity are increasingly straining precious water resources.
Fully 400 of 2,106 watersheds examined by UCS were experiencing water-supply stress in 2008.
In many cases the power plants, by tapping into an overstretched resource, were the primary drivers of the supply-stress situation.
How great is the water thirst of thermoelectric plants, in which steam created by boiling water spins turbines that produce the electricity?
Take the average amount of water flowing over Niagara Falls in a minute, UCS says. Triple that to get the water the U.S. power plants take in every minute.
It is “more water than [would supply] 140 New York Cities.”
Within the range of electricity-generating technology, most water thirsty of all are the nuclear power stations.
Withdrawing up to 60 gallons of water for each kilowatt hour produced, these on average use nearly eight times more freshwater than natural gas plants and 11 percent more than coal-fired plants, UCS states.
A figure in one of the reports points to another harm factor ­— on quality of water systems — from power plants.
Below two such, depicted on the banks of a meandering stream, the water teems with fish, anglers catching some, while above the plants the water is empty of fish.
The point of reference is the water intake structures, through which, at many plants, millions of fish are killed annually.
Added to that, the water not consumed in the plant is returned to the source at substantially higher temperature, potentially harming more fish and other wildlife.
UCS found the return flows in summer, from more than 350 power plants across the country to exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit; not a few plant operators even reported discharging water to rivers at peak temperatures above 110 degrees Farenheit, temperatures that can be lethal to much aquatic wildlife.
The water-and-energy connection thus highlighted, the responsibility for water health that each of us can take, through reducing electricity consumption, is easily seen.
A far more important responsibility — making smarter energy choices — rests primarily with the utilities.
Nuclear plants being the worst of the water hogs, shifting to certain renewable energy technologies, such as wind turbines and solar photovoltaic modules, UCS advises, “means generating electricity with essentially no water at all.”
For safeguarding the waters, one would wish the TVA to follow this good advice.