Sunday, January 27, 2008

Another Achilles' Heel for nukes - Droughts are Dry!

In early December I blogged about the TVA's power generating capacity being weakened by low water levels due to extreme drought conditions. They were faced with the Solomon's choice of supplying more water where it was most needed or to save water to produce the normal amount of electric power to the region. Of course, TVA had to provide people with water. This meant that, with less water saved behind dams, hydro had less generating capacity, forcing TVA to buy power at higher cost from other sources. And of course passing costs along to customers. End result: emergency water was provided and customers will pay more for light and heat next year.

This was almost two months ago and only barely significant rain or snow has fallen since. Now the focus is on the effects on nuclear power generation.

Again the story features TVA as the owner/manager making the decisions. This article in today's Huntsville (AL) Times does a good job of explaining the problem and how the outcome is similar to the one facing the hydro generators. The Achilles' heel with both hydro and nuke power generation is - that's right - YOU NEED ENOUGH WATER.

For every location where a new nuclear power plant is being considered, you'd better hope that climate change doesn't land a big drought on you. And while I'm at it, all those nukes built on th coastlines at sea level to make use of the ocean's voluminous water supply - you'd better hope the sea doesn't rise. How, I wonder, are those plants assessing risk these days?

Stewart (Whole Earth Catalog) Brand has been promoting nukes as the one renewable and "green" electric power source that can be put online fast enough to allow us to cut loose of coal burning plants in time to avoid the atmospheric carbon tipping point. I have an inherent fear of nuclear accidents, one of which could kill and dispace so many people - not to mention destroy gobs of infrastructure and whole local economies - that it's hard to see how benefits could be worth the risk.

But these real, climate-determined limits on operability are what adaptation planning is all about. We won't be functioning under the conditions we're used to. Climate variability will make many of our assumptions unstable and our solutions temporary. Adaptation won't be a one-time adjustment ("OK, we'll just replace the roses with cactus and that will be that."), it is likely to be an ongoing accomodation to whatever our carbon-soaked atmosphere heaps upon us, in each of our unique local environments.

Adaptation may be like what we tell people visiting us and asking how they should dress for our local weather. No matter what time of the year, we tell them, "Wear layers."

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