Climate change challenges power plant operations
By Juliet Eilperin
Published: September 9
BOULDER CITY, NEV. ï¿½ Drought and rising temperatures are forcing water
managers across the country to scramble for ways to produce the same
amount of power from the hydroelectric grid with less water, including
from behemoths such as the Hoover Dam.
Hydropower is not the only part of the nationï¿½s energy system that
appears increasingly vulnerable to the impact of climate change, as
low water levels affect coal-fired and nuclear power plantsï¿½
operations and impede the passage of coal barges along the Mississippi
ï¿½Weï¿½re trying to manage a changing climate, its impact on water
supplies and our ability to generate power, all at once,ï¿½ said Michael
L. Connor, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, the Interior
Departmentï¿½s water-management agency. Producing electricity accounts
for at least 40 percent of water use in the United States.
Warmer and drier summers mean less water is available to cool nuclear
and fossil-fuel power plants. The Millstone nuclear plant in
Waterford, Conn., had to shut down one of its reactors in mid-August
because the water it drew from the Long Island Sound was too warm to
cool critical equipment outside the core. A twin-unit nuclear plant in
Braidwood, Ill., needed to get special permission to continue
operating this summer because the temperature in its cooling-water
pond rose to 102 degrees, four degrees above its normal limit; another
Midwestern plant stopped operating temporarily because its water-
intake pipes ended up on dry ground from the prolonged drought.
Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said
the safety of Americaï¿½s nuclear plants ï¿½is not in jeopardy,ï¿½ because
the sources of water cooling the core are self-contained and might
have to shut down in some instances if water is either too warm or
ï¿½If water levels dropped to the point where you canï¿½t draw water into
the condenser, youï¿½d have to shut down the plant,ï¿½ he said.The
commissionï¿½s new chairman, Allison Macfarlane, has asked her staff to
look at ï¿½a broad array of natural events that could affect nuclear
plant operationsï¿½ in the future, such as climate change, Burnell added.
For more than three-quarters of a century, the Hoover Dam has
represented an engineering triumph, harnessing the power of the mighty
Colorado River to generate electricity for customers in not just
nearby Las Vegas but as far away as Southern California and Mexico.
But the bleached volcanic rock ringing Black Canyon above Lake Mead,
the reservoir created by the dam, speaks to the limits of human
engineering. Higher temperatures and less snowpack have reduced the
riverï¿½s flow and left the reservoir 103 feet below elevation for its
full targeted storage capacity, which it last came close to reaching
In the Colorado Riverï¿½s 100-year recorded history, 1999 through 2010
ranks as the second-driest 12-year period, yielding an average of 16
percent less energy.
Scientists have just begun to study some key questions, such as the
rate of evaporation off damsï¿½ storage facilities. Predicting river
flows ï¿½ which can flood one year and dry up the next ï¿½ is even harder.
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