Fast-tracking water for nuke power while the state withers and burns

Worth talking about water? Bucolic South Texas `Nuclear` Power complex.

Greg Harman

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With Congress and the EPA closing in on greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, some electric utilities â?? including City-owned CPS Energy in San Antonio â?? are returning to nuclear power as an apparently low-carbon alternative to traditional coal power.

CPS, competing for large subsidies from the U.S. Department of Energy for two new nukes, has committed rhetorically to moving toward sustainable, clean-energy answers like solar and energy efficiency, but not before the next large infusions of power are needed in 2018.

Other reactors have been applied for near Fort Worth and Victoria. However, to get those plants up and running will require huge amounts of water from the state.

It is not without reason that critics of nuclear power often refer to it as the most expensive way known to boil water. The two nukes CPS is seeking would likely cost $17 billion or more.

To cool down the superheated water used to create electricity can take hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per minute. According to the Sustainable Energy & Economic Development (SEED) Coalition fighting nuclear power in the state, the plants proposed at Comanche Peak in North Texas would require104,000 acre feet per year: 33.8 billion gallons.

To ease the potential political stew that could come from the plants' permit applications (if they are built), Canton-based Representative Dan Flynn filed a bill to fast-track the water permitting process. (Dan was joined by Houston's Rep. Bill Callegari as co-author a couple days after the bill was filed and has since also been joined by reps Randy Weber, Tim Kleinschmidt, and Phil King.)

Under House Bill 2721, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must create “reasonably streamlined processes” to move those applications along. One key way to move a controversial permit it to not allow the TCEQ refer it to the State Office of Administrative Hearings for a public airing.

Some bill text:

Sec. 5.559. NUCLEAR ELECTRIC GENERATION FACILITY PERMITTING. (a) The commission by rule shall implement reasonably streamlined processes for acting on an application for a permit, permit amendment, or permit renewal under Chapter 26 for a nuclear electric generation facility.

(b) Notwithstanding Section 26.021 or any other law, the commission may not refer any matter before the commission relating to an application for a permit, permit amendment, or permit renewal described by Subsection (a) to the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

(c) The permit processes authorized by this section must provide for acting on an application for a permit, permit amendment, or permit renewal not later than the first anniversary of the date the executive director determines the application to be administratively complete.

So not only are we setting Texas up to potentially hand over vast amounts of water during one of the most stunning droughts of record, Flynn's bill goes out of its way to keep fact-based debate off the table.

Ironically, the bill is scheduled to be heard by the Texas House Environmental Regulation Committee on Earth Day. (That's this Wednesday, for those of you as yet unbaptised in the green fire.)

Ah, water. It seems only last year there wasn't enough of the stuff around to cool the nuclear plants across several states.

Oh, yeah. That was last year:

LAKE NORMAN, N.C. (AP) â?? Nuclear reactors across the Southeast could be forced to throttle back or temporarily shut down later this year because drought is drying up the rivers and lakes that supply power plants with the awesome amounts of cooling water they need to operate.

Utility officials say such shutdowns probably wouldn't result in blackouts. But they could lead to shockingly higher electric bills for millions of Southerners, because the region's utilities may be forced to buy expensive replacement power from other energy companies.

Already, there has been one brief, drought-related shutdown, at a reactor in Alabama over the summer.

"Water is the nuclear industry's Achilles' heel," said Jim Warren, executive director of N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, an environmental group critical of nuclear power. "You need a lot of water to operate nuclear plants." He added: "This is becoming a crisis."

In 2006, there were nuke plant shut-downs across Europe when a punishing heat wave took thousands of lives.

From the U.K. Observer:

The European heatwave has forced nuclear power plants to reduce or halt production. The weather, blamed for deaths and disruption across much of the continent, has caused dramatic rises in the temperature of rivers used to cool the reactors, raising fears of mass deaths for fish and other wildlife.

Spain shut down the Santa Maria de Garona reactor on the River Ebro, one of the country's eight nuclear plants which generate a fifth of its national electricity. Reactors in Germany are reported to have cut output, and others in Germany and France have been given special permits to dump hot water into rivers to avoid power failures. France, where nuclear power provides more than three quarters of electricity, has also imported power to prevent shortages.

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