Climate Change Wreaks Havoc on US Power Plants

The massive Hoover Dam has been generating electricity since the 1930s, but falling water levels have forced engineers to develop new turbines. (Jonathan Gibby / For the Washington Post)

Climate Change Wreaks Havoc on US Power Plants

Less water, more heat putting enormous strain on aging energy infrastructure

The warmest summer on record in the US, along with increased demand and diminished water supplies have put intense and unexpected pressure on the nation's power plants, according to new reporting by the Washington Post.

Citing climate change and its impact, scientists and experts interviewed by the Post say that the country's energy infrastructure -- including large hyrdoelectric dams and nuclear power plants -- is in danger. Designed for a cooler and more predictable climate, but now faced with more frequent extreme weather events, the aging energy system is strained by growing demand and diminished resources.

"We're trying to manage a changing climate, its impact on water supplies and our ability to generate power, all at once," Michael L. Connor, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, the Interior Department's water management agency, told the Post.

And nuclear power plants have already felt the strain. As Juliet Eilperin reports:

Warmer and drier summers mean there is less water available to cool nuclear and fossil-fuel plants. The Millstone nuclear power 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 because of the prolonged drought.

Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the safety of America's nuclear plants "is not in jeopardy" 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 unavailable.

"If water levels dropped to the point where you can't draw water into the condenser, you'd have to shut down the plant," he said.The commission's new chairman, Allison Macfarlane, has asked her staff to look at "a broad array of natural events that could affect nuclear plant operations" in the future, such as climate change, Burnell added.

And US coal plants:

Rising temperatures have started to affect U.S. coal plants as well. This summer's drought disrupted the transport of coal delivered by barges on the Mississippi, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to use dredges to deepen the navigation channel.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency granted special exceptions to four coal-fired plants and four nuclear plants this summer, allowing them to discharge water into local waterways that was hotter than the federal clean water permits allowed. Normally the discharge water cannot exceed 90 degrees, but the waiver allowed utilities to release water as hot as 97 degrees.

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