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On Nuclear Power Plants and Water Use

Earlier this week, a pair of studies were published claiming that the world would soon face a critical shortage of drinking water, perhaps as soon as 2040 due to water consumed by power plants. I've come to view studies like these with a certain degree of skepticism given that they're often published by groups with an axe to grind.

This week was no different, as I couldn't help but notice that one of the studies was being proffered by Benjamin Sovacool, a long-time anti-nuclear activist, as well as the Vermont Law School, folks that we've tangled with before.

With that in mind, I reached out to NEI's Bill Skaff, our resident expert on nuclear energy and water use. Here's what he had to say.
We know of no reputable climate change modeling that finds any potential U.S. drinking water scarcity to be the result of power plant operations. In fact, electricity makes possible the purification and pumping necessary to produce potable water. Moreover, electricity will be essential in the future to desalinate seawater and brackish groundwater to augment drinking water supplies.

Here are some other facts to consider that provide some needed context that the news coverage this week has omitted. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 1995, the last USGS study to consider water consumption nationwide:
  • Electric power sector water consumption represents only 3.3 percent of the nation's water consumption.
  • Residential water consumption, at 6.7 percent, is more than twice power sector consumption.
  • Agricultural water consumption is 81.3 percent, 17 percent of which is water lost during conveyance that never reaches the crops it is intended to irrigate.
The Electric Power Research Institute, in a 2002 study, found that 98 percent of water withdrawn by the electric power sector is returned to the source water bodies.

The electric power industry, in partnership with businesses, universities, and the National Science Foundation, is supporting over a dozen research projects to develop power plant cooling technologies designed to reduce water consumption in the future.
Thanks to Bill for taking the time to answer my questions. For more on water use and holistic environmental management, please visit our website.

Photo Credit: Shot of running water by Flickr user Richard Smith. Photo used under Creative Commons license.


Anonymous said…
Any data from the last decade?
Anonymous said…
It turns out that 1995 is not the last year of USGS water use data available.

Ten years later, in 2005, the most recent year available, "Thermoelectric power accounted for 49 percent of total withdrawals, or 201,000 Mgal/d."
David Bradish said…
Anon, the 2005 study doesn't mention anything about "consumption," not withdrawals, which is why the '95 study was cited.
Anonymous said…
I can't get the 1995 USGS report you linked to download. Could you please post a quote from USGS where they explain how they distinguish "withdrawals" from "consumption"? The 2005 USGS factsheet I cite treats "withdrawals" as synonymous with "water use."
Anonymous said…
Here's USGS's 2013 report on water *consumption* for electric power. They say they've now resumed collecting that data they had stopped collecting in 1995.

I can't get the PDF to open, but readers can check for themselves the most recent data.
Anonymous said…
And the new report explains the distinction between "consumption" and "withdrawal." Thanks for the clarification.
Eric McErlain said…
Anon, the USGS study you are referring to is “Methods for Estimating Water Consumption for Thermoelectric Power Plants in the United States.” It does not contain “the most recent data,” but a methodology that USGS intends to use to calculate water consumption. The calculations are to follow. Whether the future report will be a mix of reported data for some plants and calculations for others remains to be seen.
Bill Skaff said…
The Electric Power Research Institute recently published a comprehensive U.S. water use study across sectors traditionally surveyed by USGS and including withdrawal and consumption: Evaluating Thermoelectric, Agricultural, and Municipal Water Consumption in a National Water Resources Framework, December 2013, Updated April 2014, Report 3002001154, at The EPRI study evaluates the USGS 2013 and other calculation methodologies for power plant consumption in Chapter 3, and then derives and provides average withdrawal and consumption numbers for plants according to cooling system and fuel type in Chapter 4. Sources of consumption are compared in Chapter 6: thermoelectric once-through is 1 percent, and thermoelectric recirculating is 3 percent, of total U.S. water consumption for the period 2005-2009 (page 6-4); irrigation is at 60 percent, and public supply and domestic self-supply at 25 percent.
Anthony Bullaro said…
In response to the posting of the study about the 2005 information: it is considering the US consumption only. If you read the statement he refers to the fact that it is a world view of the problem. So those numbers are skewed because the US does not use all of the worlds water.

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