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Monday, July 9, 2012

Hydropower: Dammed If You Do


No, that is not a picture of cooling ponds inside a nuclear reactor. Those are dust covers on the turbines at the Grand Coulee dam. According to the photographer, you have to pass through a metal detector to get this far into the power plant. Come to think of it, the nuclear power industry could probably improve their public image with similar tourist photo ops of their spent fuel cooling ponds.

There’s an article over on Mongabay about a protest of the  Belo Monte Dam project in Brazil:
 Belo Monte will flood more than 40,000 hectares of rainforest and displace tens of thousands of people. The project will impede the flow of the Xingu, which is one of the Amazon’s mightiest tributaries, disrupting fish migrations and potentially affecting nutrient flows in a section of the basin.
Photo credit: Atossa Soltani/ Amazon Watch / Spectral Q
They will of course lose in the end like all native people have always lost. You will be hard pressed to find a more environmentally destructive power source yet here we have a very upbeat article titled Hot dam: Hydropower continues to grow  on an environmental website:
Brazil, the second-largest producer of hydropower worldwide, gets 86 percent of its electricity from water resources. It is home to an estimated 450 dams, including the Itaipu Dam, which generates more electricity than any other hydropower facility in the world — over 92 billion kilowatt-hours per year.
The article also mentions Grand Coulee dam and the fact that the United States gets about seven percent of its electricity from hydro. It didn’t mention that:
 Kettle Falls, once a primary Native American fishing grounds, was inundated. The average catch went from a historical average of over 600,000 salmon a year to nothing. In one study, the Army Corps of Engineers estimated the annual loss was over a million fish. The environmental impact of the dam effectively ended the traditional way of life of the native inhabitants. The government eventually compensated the Colville Indians in the 1990s with a lump settlement of approximately $52 million, plus annual payments of approximately $15 million.
Interestingly enough, the above link also says:
 In 2007, Grand Coulee generated the second-most energy among US power facilities, after the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant at 26.78 TWh. Palo Verde has a lower nameplate capacity but operates at a higher capacity factor, giving it slightly more annual output.
Which got me to thinking. There are over 1400 hydroelectric power plants in the U.S. compared to 105 nuclear power plants. The 105 nuclear power plants produce almost three times more energy …without destroying a single ecosystem or native culture. I then read a little bit about the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant:
Due to its location in the Arizona desert, Palo Verde is the only nuclear generating facility in the world that is not located adjacent to a large body of above-ground water. The facility evaporates water from the treated sewage of several nearby municipalities to meet its cooling needs. 20billion US gallons (76,000,000m³) of treated water are evaporated each year. This water represents about 25% of the annual overdraft of the Arizona Department of Water Resources Phoenix Active Management Area. At the nuclear plant site, the wastewater is further treated and stored in an 80 acre (324,000 m²) reservoir for use in the plant’s cooling towers.
You will be hard pressed to find an more environmentally friendly power source.

(Photo credit theslowlane via the Flickr Creative Commons license)

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous5:50 AM

    There are actually 104 commercial reactors operating in the US with a handful or so on the brink or committed to shutting down so that number will drop. Then there are 4 new units being built in the southeast. That being said, your posts are usually more balanced whereas this one seems to take a shot at hydro or perhaps the environmental argument. Environmental damage comes in different forms though and I think you'd be wise to acknowledge some of the nuclear downsides such as water requirements (Palo Verde being the only one using muni water), really long term waste management concerns, low probability but possible long term damage should large releases occur, and so on. Point is just that these things do exist and that there is no panacea, including commercial power reactors, especially in the US. Existing reactors in the US are old, tired, and in many ways antiquated. Hence, the new reactors will certainly add to the argument but I'm not sure we can continue to justify the continued operation of reactors designed and built 30-60 years ago with a clear conscience. And I'm not sure we posses the political will to truly move towards a sound and sustainable energy policy in this country when people are so unwilling to have an apples to apples, honest discussion about our available and potential energy resources.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "That being said, your posts are usually more balanced whereas this one seems to take a shot at hydro or perhaps the environmental argument."

    This was not meant to be a balanced article quantifying the pros and cons of both energy systems.

    "Environmental damage comes in different forms though and I think you'd be wise to acknowledge some of the nuclear downsides such as water requirements."

    Certainly dams use the river water that was used for fish runs.

    Solar thermal also uses water. I am not aware of any nuclear power plant that uses so much water that other users have had to go without. They are often located near large bodies of water like the ocean, a lake, or river. They can also be designed for air cooling.

    "...really long term waste management concerns, low probability but possible long term damage should large releases occur, and so on."

    Waste management concerns of nuclear pale in comparison to the waste dumped into the atmosphere and oceans by fossil fuels.

    Dam failures have been known to kill hundreds of thousands.

    "Point is just that these things do exist and that there is no panacea, including commercial power reactors, especially in the US."

    Nobody called nuclear a panacea.

    "Existing reactors in the US are old, tired, and in many ways antiquated. Hence, the new reactors will certainly add to the argument but I'm not sure we can continue to justify the continued operation of reactors designed and built 30-60 years ago with a clear conscience."

    The FAA regulates the maintenance of airliners, thousands of which were built decades ago. Should we allow that in clear conscience?

    "And I'm not sure we posses the political will to truly move towards a sound and sustainable energy policy in this country when people are so unwilling to have an apples to apples, honest discussion about our available and potential energy resources."

    This post was primarily a critique of hydro, not a critique of all renewable energy. A post on that very topic is in the pipeline.

    ReplyDelete

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