A Cautionary Tale of Water and Power

August 5, 2015, 9:51PMANS Nuclear Cafe

by Will Davis

While some people are ripping their hair out over the drought and shortage of water in California, others are ripping out their lawns-and are getting paid to do it. Of course, had the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) plans for California in the mid-1960s been carried out, there would likely have been plenty of water, even today, and we wouldn't be in this mess.

Shortage recognized on horizon

"I have long contended that the lead time for modern technology is such that we simply cannot wait until requirements hit us." (James T. Ramey, commissioner, AEC, "The Atomic Energy Commission's Role in the Saline Water Program"; see notes.)

In the middle 1960s it was already well-recognized that the United States, particularly the west and southwest, was rapidly growing in population.The United States had mined and tapped the long-built-up reserve of ground water highly enough that action was needed to balance the supply of clean water available for consumption and irrigation. To that end, the U.S. Office of Saline Water was working very closely with the AEC to develop very large combined power plants that offered electricity for commercial sale, and clean water for commercial distribution. The power source, naturally, was nuclear energy.

The decision-making process was being accelerated as California, in particular, flourished in population. The AEC recognized that the number of available sites for nuclear plants along the coast line was limited, both by geology and by population factors. This made it difficult to continue to add nuclear plants here and there over time. The plan proposed by the AEC was to build very large combination power and desalination plants starting as soon as possible. This way the sites were utilized to their fullest and they did not need to be modified later to accept desalination. Further, by integrating the design of the nuclear and desalination plants from the very first stroke of a draftsman's 2H pencil, efficiency could be maximized and plant operative interaction controlled.

The water problem was not by any means limited to California, or even the United States, because at the same time Mexico City was also suffering an almost incredible problem. Mexico was slowly collapsing into the ground as ground water below it was being pumped out and used by the enormously growing population. Mexico had also hoped, in the middle 1960s, for a future where nuclear desalination could play a role-not just to provide clean water, but to save its capital city.

Bigger and bigger

The capacity of the plants being considered (which were hoped to provide over 150 million gallons of clean water per day, every day, as a base line) forced a great advance in research in two fields; the desalination process and nuclear reactors.

Desalination itself (the process of providing clean water with the ocean's salt removed) is easy enough on a small scale, using distillation. On an enormous scale, however, it was still a daunting task in the middle 1960s, although studies at the time showed that the technology was close to commercial reality. In fact, a study performed by the AEC, the Office of Saline Water, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California told the story that a large two-reactor power/water plant could be in operation by 1970 and could produce clean water right at, or just below, 25 cents per thousand gallons. Just a decade and a half earlier the cost to do this conventionally was 16 times higher. The AEC was studying multiple commercial methods and equipment with which it could proceed to the reality of a combined nuclear and desalination plant, certain that one (or more) would prove viable.

Of course, the preparation of this amount of water requires great power. To that end, in the mid-60s the AEC asked several reactor vendors (Westinghouse, General Electric, Atomics International, and General Atomics) to perform feasibility studies to determine if reactors in the 5000 MWt to 10000 MWt range were possible in the short term. Interestingly all four answered "yes," with some provisions and considerations. For example, Westinghouse said "yes" but wanted AEC to allow licensing of a complete pre-stressed concrete primary coolant system, housed in cavities in a giant block, with the main coolant pumps mounted on its top surface. General Electric said "yes" but wanted the AEC to allow licensing of its Mk I vapor suppression containment on a vastly increased size scale and using a pre-stressed concrete reactor vessel inside, instead of steel. Atomics International believed that such a reactor (using its organic cooled technology) was workable but had to shift to using heavy water as the moderator. It could not use the organic fluid (Santowax) as both moderator and coolant. General Atomics required the least alteration to conventional design (using high temperature gas-cooled reactors). All prepared preliminary designs in the 8000 to 10000 MWt power range, intended to be used in a pair in a massive power/water plant.

As just one example, Atomics International prepared a preliminary plan using two 8250 MWt reactors. The plant would have contained five 4000 MWe turbine generators, providing a total of 3400 Mwe to the grid and the rest to the desalination plant, which was to have provided one billion gallons of clean water per day. The figures are truly stunning-and they prove how clearly the AEC and the Office of Saline Water recognized the need for water on a giant scale in the future.

What can we learn?

I think we know that this plan never happened. The AEC was disbanded, population growth was maybe not quite so bad as had been predicted, and the determined development of industrial plants of this incredible output in both energy and water was halted. While one plant proposal was cancelled on seismic grounds, none of the other available sites was built as a combined power/water plant.

Today we now see again the crisis in water. We see the homeowners in California making moves to reduce water to the point of removing greenery. This greenery helps clean the air and process CO2 into oxygen. We see water shortage in Puerto Rico, an island that once had a small experimental nuclear power plant (at Punta Higuera) and cancelled plans to build ya much larger one. We wonder had that nuclear plant been built, if it could have been powering desalination at night when demand for electricity was not high. We wonder if anti-nuclear terror had not gripped California (which is now apparently preparing to mount the cavalry to shut down Diablo Canyon), would there have been a fighting chance for nuclear desalination. These would have been smart choices. The foresight was there in the middle 1960s to get the job done; the ball was dropped later.

What would the effect be if today's advanced nuclear plant designs were also designed in parallel with large, modern water desalination plants integrated properly, right from the start? One could argue the better commercial appeal of such plants. One could argue the need for such plants quite easily. Easy too would be getting across the point that Commissioner Ramey made half a century ago about how long it takes to develop technology, and the fact that we can't wait until we need something to start to develop it.

Nuclear desalination on a large scale is not just an idea whose time has come. Its idea came 50 years ago, and nothing has really been done about it since the AEC's programs were dropped. No one can argue against the need for such plants, even if one tries to argue nuclear safety. There is plenty of water; there is proven nuclear technology; there is a real, and very serious, need. What are we waiting for?


Source for much of this data comes from "Water Production Using Nuclear Energy," Edited by Roy G. Post and Robert L. Seale and published by University of Arizona Press, Tuscon, 1966. This volume is a compilation of papers relating to desalination of water using nuclear energy, and focuses very highly on the AEC's proposed (and preferred) dual purpose plants as described above. My copy of this book was formerly in the AEC's Library in Washington, D.C., but was delisted and sold.

Will Davis is Communications Director and board member for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He is a consultant to the Global America Business Institute, a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee. He is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.