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The Climate Column

As Britain gets drier, we don’t talk about how much water nuclear power uses

A new fleet of nuclear power stations would require staggering amounts of water we don’t have, writes Donnachadh McCarthy

Monday 08 August 2022 12:01 BST
<p>The Tory Energy Secretary has authorised the consumption of more than 20 billion litres of water by a new nuclear plant</p>

The Tory Energy Secretary has authorised the consumption of more than 20 billion litres of water by a new nuclear plant

In the middle of one of the worst droughts in British history, Kwasi Kwarteng, the Tory Energy Secretary, has just authorised the consumption of more than 20 billion litres of water by a new nuclear plant.

A British person would have to turn off all their taps for 385,000 years to save that much water. To make matters worse, the new Sizewell C power plant will be located in East Anglia, one of the driest parts of Britain.

It is no wonder therefore that today a legal challenge to the government’s decision was launched by the campaign group Together Against Sizewell C (TASC).

Kwarteng okayed it despite the planning inquiry recommending a refusal for precisely that reason – there was no clarity over where the water for the building and operation of the nuclear power plants would come from. They also do not know where the nuclear waste can be dumped!

This week, France had to reduce its nuclear power operations because the cooling river water was insufficient or too hot, during another extremely hot summer.

We are rightly being told not to use hosepipes or leave our taps running, but what is missing from the debate on protecting our drinking water and wildlife is the consumption of water by our coal, gas and nuclear power stations.

The production of energy takes up 44 per cent of all our water usage across Europe, more than double what goes into our public water supply.

While the main water consumption at Sizewell C would be seawater, just building the reactors would take up to 12.75 billion litres of fresh water (3.5 million per day for a 10-year building period) and then 7.3 billion more for the first 10 years of operation – 2 million litres per day.

The Johnson / Truss government has promised to build eight nuclear plants, this would require up to 80 billion litres of water for building and operating them for 10 years. These are staggering amounts of water we increasingly don’t have.

When I asked Kwasi Kwarteng’s department where this water would come from, they did not answer the question, but said: “Nuclear power stations must meet robust standards which are overseen by independent regulators such as the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency.”

With our rivers already full of sewage and suffering over-extraction – due to the collapse in the Environment Agency’s capacity to oversee standards since the Tory government decimated its funding – this statement insults the public’s intelligence.

If these expensive nuclear plants get built, they will be operational by the late 2040s, by which time Britain will be receiving 15% less rainfall, according to the Environment Agency.

Since there is not sufficient local mains water to supply the building of Sizewell C, which the planning inspector accepted, the suggestions are to use either a fleet of water tankers, a water pipeline from the river Waveney, or to build a temporary desalination plant.

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Except, as I write, sections of the Waveney river are literally dry during the drought. And the Environment Agency believes that water extraction from the Waveney already needs to be reduced by 60 per cent to protect the river’s wildlife.

It is clear to me that only a government captured by the nuclear industry would give the go-ahead for such a fleet of water-guzzling energy plants, especially in the middle of a water crisis. (That said, neither the Lib Dems or Labour were much better on this issue). Clean energy power and storage have negligible water footprints in comparison and produce far cheaper electricity.

As water supplies get increasingly stressed, they will increasingly be needed to keep our crops and wildlife alive. The good news is that the public overwhelmingly backs renewables way more than nuclear energy.

The bad news is that the right-wing press barons anointing Liz Truss as the next prime minister are also cheerleaders for the corporate nuclear lobby. In this battle, the people must win.

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