Alabama Nuke in Hot Water

(Originally published at Ecocentric)

The fragile and complex relationship between water and energy resurfaced this summer at the Tennessee Valley Authority's infamous Browns Ferry nuclear power plant in Northern Alabama.

On 40 different days in July and August the three reactors at the Browns Ferry plant -- which together withdraw about 15 million gallons per hour from the Tennessee River to meet cooling needs -- were forced to run at about half power. Why? The reason might surprise you.

While in the past a lack of available water has plagued some plants, in this case the culprit was an unusually high river water temperature -- the result of hot weather. The TVA plant's water discharge permit prohibits the company from causing the downstream water temperature to exceed 93 degrees Fahrenheit (averaged over a 1-hour period) and 90 degrees Fahrenheit (averaged over a 24-hour period), with a maximum temperature rise of 10 degrees over natural temperature conditions that cannot exceed the 1-hour average or 24-hour average [pdf]. These limitations are intended to protect the Tennessee River's aquatic life. To avoid violating the permit requirements, the TVA had to reduce their heated discharge into the river. This can be challenging because, at times, the upstream temperature might already be 90 degrees or more.

This reduction in power production came at a large cost to the TVA and its ratepayers. It also impacted electric reliability, since the reduction occurred during a period when demand for electricity is at its highest.

Of the nation's 66 commercial nuclear power plants, the Browns Ferry facility has been the most impacted by this particular water-related factor. This has been acknowledged by both the plant's owner and the industry's front group, the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The water-energy nexus as it applies to nuclear energy has come into greater focus in recent years. A 2007 Associated Press investigative report helped bring attention to how vulnerable nuclear power plants are to water-associated constraints.

For the TVA and its Browns Ferry plant, this will be a summer to remember. The events at Browns Ferry are also a reminder to energy and water officials, planners and policymakers at all levels of government that their leadership is critical to avoid similar problems in the future. In part that means moving more aggressively to implement energy efficiency programs and water-efficient renewable energy technologies.

Failure to act in a swift, decisive and effective manner will have severe environmental and economic repercussions. Part of any action plan must be breaking our dependence on antiquated conventional power generation.

To continue down the path we are on is foolish. As the expression goes, when you find yourself in a deep hole, stop digging!

(Originally published at Ecocentric)