US, European nuclear and coal-fired electrical plants vulnerable to climate change: study

Warmer water and reduced river flows in the United States and Europe in recent years have led to reduced production, or temporary shutdown, of several thermoelectric power plants. For instance, the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama had to shut down more than once last summer because the Tennessee River's water was too warm to use it for cooling.

A study by European and University of Washington scientists published today in Nature Climate Change projects that in the next 50 years warmer water and lower flows will lead to more such power disruptions. The authors predict that thermoelectric power generating capacity from 2031 to 2060 will decrease by between 4 and 16 percent in the U.S. and 6 to 19 percent in Europe due to lack of cooling water. The likelihood of extreme drops in power generation—complete or almost-total shutdowns—is projected to almost triple.

"This study suggests that our reliance on thermal cooling is something that we're going to have to revisit," said co-author Dennis Lettenmaier, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Thermoelectric plants, which use nuclear or fossil fuels to heat water into steam that turns a turbine, supply more than 90 percent of U.S. electricity and account for 40 percent of the nation's freshwater usage. In Europe, these plants supply three-quarters of the electricity and account for about half of the freshwater use.

While much of this water is "recycled," the power plants rely on consistent volumes of water, at a particular temperature, to prevent the turbines from overheating.

Reduced water availability and warmer water, caused by increasing air temperatures associated with climate change, mean higher electricity costs and less reliability.

While plants with cooling towers will be affected, results show older plants that rely on "once-through cooling" are the most vulnerable. These plants pump water directly from rivers or lakes to cool the turbines before returning the water to its source, and require high flow volumes.

The study projects the most significant U.S. effects at power plants situated inland on major rivers in the Southeast that use once-through cooling, such as the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama and the New Madrid coal-fired plant in southeastern Missouri.

"The worst-case scenarios in the Southeast come from heat waves where you need the power for air conditioning," Lettenmaier said. "If you have really high power demand and the river temperature's too high so you need to shut your power plant down, you have a problem."

The study used hydrological and water temperature models developed by Lettenmaier and co-author John Yearsley, a UW affiliate professor of civil and environmental engineering. The European authors combined these with an electricity production model and considered two climate-change scenarios: one with modest technological change and one that assumed a rapid transition to renewable energy. The range of projected impacts to power systems covers both scenarios.

The U.S. and Europe both have strict environmental standards for the volume of water withdrawn by plants and the temperature of the water discharged. Warm periods coupled with low river flows could thus lead to more conflicts between environmental objectives and energy production.

Discharging water at elevated temperatures causes yet another problem: downstream thermal pollution.

"Higher electricity prices and disruption to supply are significant concerns for the energy sector and consumers, but another growing concern is the environmental impact of increasing water temperatures on river ecosystems, affecting, for example, life cycles of aquatic organisms," said first author Michelle van Vliet, a doctoral student at the Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands.

Given the high costs and the long lifetime of power plants, the authors say, such long-range projections are important to let the electricity sector adapt to changes in the availability of cooling water and plan infrastructure investments accordingly.

One adaptation strategy would be to reduce reliance on freshwater sources and place the plants near saltwater, according to corresponding author Pavel Kabat, director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria and van Vliet's doctoral adviser.

"However, given the life expectancy of power plants and the inability to relocate them to an alternative water source, this is not an immediate solution, but should be factored into infrastructure planning," he said. "Another option is to switch to new gas-fired power plants that are both more efficient than nuclear- or fossil-fuel-power plants and that also use less water."

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More information: Vulnerability of US and European electricity supply to climate change. Michelle T. H. van Vliet, John R. Yearsley, Fulco Ludwig, Stefan Vögele, Dennis P. Lettenmaier and Pavel Kabat. Nature Climate Change, 10.1038/NCLIMATE1546 , June 3 2012.
Journal information: Nature Climate Change

Provided by University of Washington
Citation: US, European nuclear and coal-fired electrical plants vulnerable to climate change: study (2012, June 3) retrieved 19 August 2019 from
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Jun 03, 2012
"For instance, the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama had to shut down more than once last summer because the Tennessee River's water was too warm to use it for cooling."

Alabama only warm compared to the late 1970s, but it is a lot colder tan Alabama in the 20s and 30s.


As for shutting down because of "warm water", how about for Tornadoes?


Jun 03, 2012
Climate change scientists have done to science what abusive priests did for religion.

Jun 03, 2012
wind and solar energy require no cooling water.

Jun 03, 2012
Will please openly renounce the CO2 exaggeration? Get ahead of the curve.

Jun 03, 2012
Chill, I'm a lib too and most former climate change believers are libs as well so don't make this about politics any more than it already is. It's about science, criminal science that has sustained a needless state of panic for 26 years. Science gave us pesticides that they denied being dangerous for decades. We need better reasons to condemn our own children than a they say headline. Besides, fear mongering the voters children will leave us out of power for forever.
-Socialist Canada voted in a climate change denying prime minister to a majority.
-Occupy does not mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded carbon trading stock markets run by corporations.
-Canada killed Y2Kyoto and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists.
-Obama has not mentioned the crisis in the last two state of the unions.
-Gore is the most ridiculed man in America next to Bush.
-NASAs scientists have revolted against climate blame policy.

Jun 03, 2012
WOW! This is a serious problem. I visited a nuclear power plant in Rochester NY a few weeks ago, they use something like 500,000 gallons of lake water per second to cool the plant. If that water goes up a few degrees on average, it could well decrease the operating efficiency of the turbines.

Conservatives have always been the enemies of reason.

Only for the past 15-20 years, at least with regards to this issue. It's funny because conservatives used to believe the ozone hole wasn't a problem, and even mocked Al Gore for talking about it - but Reagan was the guy who took action to fix it. We could really use a bold conservative president with the guts to actually listen to scientists and ignore the howlers. But instead we get Romney... *sigh*

Jun 03, 2012
ParkerTard has a point. The generators were built not for 1930's temperatures or the much warmer temperatures Alabama will soon be experiencing.

What warmer temperatures?

2011 in Alabama was ranked 77 out of 117. 40 years were warmer.

85 years were warmer than 2010.

83 years were warmer than 2009.

73 years were warmer than 2008.

1998 was the last year to make the top 10.


The warmest years in Alabama are: 1927,1921,1933,1925,1922,1911,1938,1949 and 1998.

No regional warming at all.

Jun 03, 2012
wind and solar energy require no cooling water.

Great, but, when do we see wind and solar generating all of our energy, and how?

Jun 03, 2012
These Warmer temperatures...


"What warmer temperatures?" - ParkerTard

"Alabama..." - ParkerTard

Is not representative of the globe, as it represents only 0.027 percent of the globe and is not evenly distributed over the earth's surface.

ParkerTard's entire argument is nothing but dishonest cherry picking and outright lying.

He is mentally ill.

1) Alabama was the example used. Alabama isn't warming.

2) "Global" warming is in fact regional.

3) Mocking fake scientists who can't even do the most rudimentary checking of facts seems to set off VD's Tourettes Syndrome.

4) And picking Alabama as an example was hilariously dumb.

5) The warmest years in Alabama are: 1927, 1921, 1933, 1925, 1922, 1911, 1938, 1949 and 1998. The fake climate scientists should quit calling it "global" anything.

Jun 03, 2012
Alabama is not representative of the globe

Nothing is. Every region is different.

1998 is the warmest recent year in Alabama and it was only 9th.

Alabama was the big example mentioned in the article.

Jun 03, 2012
If the TVA had completed the Belefonte Nuclear power plan up river from Browns Ferry, the power and heat load would be more distributed.
Fortunately, the Belefonte plant is in process of completion.

Jun 04, 2012
If that water goes up a few degrees on average, it could well decrease the operating efficiency of the turbines.

The problem is even more severe than that. 'A few degrees' usually means that the temperature is already above the legal limit (yes, there are legal limits for when you can and cannot take water from a stream, because if the water gets too warm - due to you pumping in heated water - then the wildlife downstream is in danger)
This regularly mandates shutdowns of powerplants in the summer over here. o much for the illsuion that coal and nuclear are 'reliable sources of power'.
Draught years with low water levels will only exacerbate the problem (ha, finally found a sentence to use THAT word in).

Jun 04, 2012
Another hilarious climate article. Keep them coming for the laughs...

Jun 04, 2012
Can we not design reactors that utilize all of the heat they generate in the production of electricity?

Nope. Carnot cycle.

For conversion (by whatever method) you need a temperature gradient (which gets destroyed and out comes electricity). So you need to continually recreate that energy gradient (by taking in cool water and expelling heated water).

Jun 04, 2012
"Draught years with low water levels will only exacerbate the problem (ha, finally found a sentence to use THAT word in)."

"Drought" years must have been your intention, but draught beer for cooling is a thought when in Bavaria.

Jun 04, 2012
While ParkerTard is blathering nonsense about Alabama, the world continues to grow warmer.

"Stockholm broke an 84-year-old cold record on Saturday, as the capitals temperature only reached 6 degrees Celsius, the lowest June maximum daily temperature the city has seen since 1928."


Jun 04, 2012
Another hilarious climate article. Keep them coming for the laughs...

What kind of an idiot finds the inability to cool nuclear reactors funny? Did you pop some popcorn and watch the daily coverage of Fukushima news, giggling like a schoolgirl....jackass.

True greenies really hate power systems like nuclear because one day there was a drought and the water level was low.

They want those unreliable power plants replaced with wind ... which quits works for days and weeks, or even better solar which quits working every night for 8 to 16 hours.

Jun 04, 2012
"Drought" years must have been your intention

Well, live and you learn.

Jun 04, 2012
Contrary to what this article makes it sound like, thermal power plants have no problem using the warmer water for cooling. The problem is the regulatory limits which dictates the temperature limit of the discharged cooling water, which varies by season.

If the water is hotter than the average for the season, the power plant could be required to shut down as to not breach the regulatory limit.

Jun 04, 2012
A lot of people give coal and bad name and most of the time the prejudice comes with little or no knowledge. For the immediate future and even the next 5-10yrs coal is certainly our most cost effective and stable source of energy. If we put a small percentage of the money we dump into solar and wind projects that go nowhere perhaps this wouldn't be an issue at all.

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