As human populations increase around the world, dwindling freshwater reserves come under additional pressure. Already, nearly one-fifth of the globe lacks access to potable drinking water.
Various water treatment methods are often too expensive to even consider, and even the most promising solutions typically come up short. Nuclear power, however, may be just the ticket for dually effective renewable energy generation and water desalination.
While it’s easy to assume that most individuals who are in danger of running out of water live in the developing world, the truth is that we are all at risk of losing our precious water resources. Take for example the situation in California, where extended periods of drought have municipalities scrambling to find enough fresh water for their citizens. Florida’s aquifers are also increasingly at risk. Traditional desalinization techniques involve pushing seawater through a membrane that filters out the salt, a process, called reverse osmosis, that is both energy-intensive and very expensive.
Nuclear plants often use water as a coolant to keep reactor temperatures within safe bounds. Adding the ability to filter this water and distribute it through local water infrastructure is much cheaper than building a traditional desalination plant from scratch. What's more, nuclear power facilities can employ another technology besides reverse osmosis: The multi-stage flash distillation process boils water, which then precipitates out with the salt and other impurities left behind. Since nuclear reactors produce heat as a byproduct of ordinary operation, very little extra energy needs to be expended to turn the water into steam.
A further boon comes from the fact that nuclear is one of the greenest forms of energy around. Although some detractors point to the undesirability of radioactive nuclear waste, the truth is that such material, while undoubtedly dangerous, is generated on a much smaller scale than the pollutants associated with burning oil and coal. According to Ohio Gas, the United States is one of the worst offenders in terms of expelling dangerous levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Unless and until solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric and other types of renewable electrical production ramp up significantly to meet demand, nuclear has an important role to play in the global energy landscape.
There are, of course, certain downsides to the prospect of of using nuclear power plants to remove the salt from seawater. Ocean-dwelling organisms can be sucked into the machinery, killing them. Additionally, there is the question of what to do with the leftover salt -- which is mostly just thrown back into the sea, possibly affecting wildlife. These concerns and others, however, pale in comparison when thinking of the devastating effects of not having enough water to drink, and they could potentially be ameliorated with updates to standard operating procedures.
Nuclear desalination technology has already been employed in Kazakhstan, Japan, India and other countries around the world. In California, the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant is helping to fight the local drought by producing around 825,000 gallons of drinkable water daily.
Building nuclear energy infrastructure requires a lot of upfront investment as does the creation of desalination plants. But by combining the two types of facilities together, great cost savings can be achieved. Considering the benefits that accrue from doing so – potable water along with inexpensive, relatively clean energy – we're likely to see this method employed more extensively in future. As mankind increasingly runs up against the limits of energy production as well as safe water resources, nuclear energy might be the solution to both issues.