Monday, November 30, 2009

Solving the World Water Problems: What McKinsey & Company does not say

McKinsey & Company, the management consultant company whose advice was so helpful toENRON, Swiss-air, Kmart, and Global Crossing, has now published a 185 page report on current and future world water shortages. McKinsey & Company is of course a darling of the Greens because of a previous report that suggested that huge amounts of carbon savings were possible with energy efficiency. Form this the anti-nuclear Greens concluded that energy efficiency would make the construction of new nuclear plants unnecessary. This is of course preposterous nonsense, but McKinsey & Company has done nothing to disabuse the anti-nuclear fanatics. Now McKinsey & Company has come up with a new report on global water issues.

There is no question that world water issues constitute serious problems and water shortages create multiple problems for many nations including many areas in the United States. There are, however, a good solution to the world wide shortage of good quality water that the McKinsey and Company report completely ignored, the use of nuclear desalinization. This is not a new idea. In 1963 Phillip Hammond, a nuclear pioneer who worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, suggested that waste heat from nuclear power plants could be used to distill large amounts of sea water. ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg, ever a visionary, quickly realized the implications of Hammond's idea. Nuclear power can cause the deserts to bloom Weinberg told the Kennedy Administration. The Idea was presented to the 1964 United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, and was endorsed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and by the Johnson Administration. Research began at Oak Ridge, and quickly yielded improvements in both distillation technology, and reverse osmosis (RO) technology. Despite the rapid progress, the Johnson Administration, faced with mounting costs for the Vietnam War, cut funding to the ORNL Nuclear desalinization project, and prematurely ending this very promising project.

The termination of nuclear desalinization research at ORNL was hardly the end of exploration of the use of nuclear power for nuclear desalinization. In the Soviet Union, the concept was connected with the fast reactor research. The Soviet experimental BN-350 demonstrated that large scale nuclear desalinization of the brackish water from the Caspian Sea was possible. Most of the heat produced by by the BN-350 was used in the desalinization process, and up to 120,000 cubic meters (or about 100 acre feet) of fresh water per day were produced.

Currently, dedicated desalinization plants are almost without exception operated with fossil fuel heat sources. or utilized reverse osmosis, a desalinization method that forces water through a membrane under pressure.Osmosis does not require heat, but electricity is normally use to provide the energy needed to force the water. However waste heat from nuclear plants can be substituted from the heat created by burning fossil fuels. In addition electricity generated by nuclear facilities can be used to drive reverse osmosis desalinization. This opens some interesting does for conventional nuclear technology, as well as for advanced generation IV reactors.

One of the problems of the post carbon grid is the generation of part time power. Base load power is generated twenty four hours a day seven days a week. But electrical demand goes up in the day time. But excess nuclear capacity available at night need not go to waste. It can be put to work generating electricity to drive reverse osmoses. Dual purpose nuclear generators, for example, a reactor can be used to produce water most of the time, but switch from producing water to feeding the grid during periods of peak demand. Load following would be possible while operating a reverse osmosis facility. As load demand increases, electricity can be switched from the osmosis plant to the grid, and as electrical demand drops, electricity can be switched back the osmosis process.

The co-generation of electricity and water will greatly increase the thermal efficiency of nuclear power facilities, and the sale of water will add to the facility's revenue stream. Of course, electricity/water cogeneration will not be possible everywhere. Co-generation requires a source of salty, or brackish water, and a need for fresh water. Most co-generation facilities can be located close to the sea. But over half of the population of the United States lives near the sea, many in areas that have or will face acute water shortages. The American Southwest faces a grim future of long term drought, and the California water shortage of continues to grow. The long term prospects for the Colorado River are particularly grim, and researchers are now predicting that Lake Mead and Lake Powell could both run dry in little over a decade. Thus in the Southwest, particularly in California, nuclear co-generatrion of water and electricity offers the only plausible plan for alleviating the growing water shortage.

Finally it should be noted that reactor heat that is rejected during the electrical generation process can not only be used for desalinization, but it could also be used for district heating. The brine, leftover from the desalinization still has useful heat that can be captured and piped to area homes, business and factories. Not only can the heat be used to for winter heating, but it can also heat water, and can also power summer air conditioning. Such a system would have the double benefit of increasing reactor thermal efficiency while lowering electrical demand.

Finally it should be noted that the brine produced by the nuclear desalinization process contains many valuable minerals, that have been sufficiently concentrated by the desalinization process that their recovery is possible. The recovery of minerals from the nuclear desalinization process would thus provide a further revenue stream for a reactor owner.

It thus should be noted that reactors are a very promising source of desperately needed fresh water, and that nuclear desalinization has the potential to add new revenue sources to reactor owners. This is the story that the McKinsay & Company report on world water resources failed to tell.


Alex P. said...

very interesting, they are perfectly my thoughts, too. I also do note that nuclear heat can help to produce that tiny amount of liquid biofuels to integrate plug-in hybrids - almost half of the energy input in ethanol production is low temperature steam, and for example cellulosic biomass "wastes", rather than corn or other food crops, to produce clean ethanol can be quite easily used

I'd also add some numbers to your post : for example, it takes about 25-55 thermal kWh of low temp heat at a temp less than 100 °C (MED and MSF processes) and, if I remember correctly, 10 kWh electric per cubic meter of fresh water (RO process). Maybe you have more updated figures

Charles Barton said...

Alex, Thank you for the added information.

David Walters said...

Charles, what would be the costs (probably a lot) to use existing nuclear facilities such as San Onofre and Diable Canyon NPPs located on California's coast for this process? Would the engineering being too much? Shouldn't any new additional plant approved for the area be tasked, by law, to produce potable water?
DW says "0 comments" when I logged on here but there were the two already.

Charles Barton said...

David, It probably would not cost more to modify an existing nuclear plant than it would cost to build a new desalinization facility from scratch. There would be virtually no fuel charge, since "the fuel" is now regarded as waste heat. If I were in the California water business, i would want a lot of sea side nuclear plants with huge desalinization facilities, and I would want them fast. California is facing a major water shortage disaster in the next 10 years.

J. Paige said...


Nukes sited on the ocean side of deserts (S. Cal comes to mind), perhaps also Western Oz, Western South Africa, etc.) could certainly generate a large volume of potable water with their waste heat. But potable water is not skywater.

I'd like to point out that by using a portion of that heat in a so-called Atmospheric Vortex Engine would put large volumes of maritime air several km in the air, where it would condense to clouds, some to actual water. Without a mechanism to get the moisture high, no skywater. Check out this Australian engineer's concept to use vortex engines in his country...a place very well suited to this technology. Here's the link:

Keep up the good work!

J. Paige Straley

Frank Kandrnal said...

Using nuclear heat for sea water desalination was no brainer to us old timers power engineers.
There is no need for electrically driven reverse osmosis in the system. Our old time idea was to use extraction turbine to juggle electric power output and waste heat output according to demand.
In other words, we would close the steam extraction port from turbine at electric peak demand and expand steam to vacuum condenser to get maximum electric output. At night or at off peak hours the extraction port would open and send any desirable portion of low pressure steam to standard MSF desalination plant. In this way it is easy to control electric power output and utilize higher temperature waste heat from extraction turbine.
This system is simple and reliable.
If combined with thorium fueled LFTR it would produce electricity and fresh water at very low cost using available technology. Lower electrical generating efficiency with back pressure turbine operation is totally unimportant when waste heat is utilized, especially if nuclear heat is used to drive the process. The beauty of the process is that it uses time proven technology and existing hardware, except LFTR, hence it could be implemented quickly.
There may be better systems on the drawing board, however, the modern day designers will have hard time beating the simplicity, reliability and low cost of steam operated desalination/electric generation combined cycle. There is nothing wrong with existing steam and desalination hardware. The only missing link in the system is a low cost nuclear reactor.
I believe that smaller scale LFTR or IFR can fill this missing link.

Soylent said...

Would it make sense to couple desalination with extraction of useful elements from the rejected brine?

Uranium and lithium is perhaps most interesting, but there are plenty of others that could be of interest; such as germanium, caesium, indium, magnesium, potassium, rubidium, bromine and iodine.

Neurovore said...

In terms of the brine being a source of rare minerals...could this also be used as a cheap way of recovering uranium from seawater, provided that the LFTR paradigm does not get off of the ground anytime soon?

This might seem like an absurd question, but why is nuclear desalinization not more widespread in its use than it is now? The process seems very simple and it utilizes energy that otherwise goes to waste...why are fossil fuels being used for something so simple?

crf said...

Soylent: nuclear desalination blog

Alex P. said...

Unless we are going to fuel a breeder, I suspect that extraction of uranium from seawater in desalination plants has very little sense. Even if the size of the plant is > 250 milions liters per day (one of the biggest), the amount of uranium produced will be less than half tonn of natural uranium per year (assuming an efficiency of recovery of 100%) - a number too small and usefull only for breeders

Robert Merkel said...

When I crunched the numbers a while ago, I came to the conclusion that nuclear desalination would make relatively cheap potable water for domestic consumption, but the quantities you'd get even out of a dedicated, large reactor would be insufficient to make agriculture with the desalinated water cost-effective.

The only way I could see it working is by building truly gargantuan, dedicated desalination reactors. You wouldn't need the steam turbines or associated bits and pieces, but you'd also need to build a number of them to get the construction costs down (and you'd still have the well-known issues with large reactors).

Even then, it's probably much easier to use a (nuclear-powered ;] ) ship to transport agricultural products from areas where there is more rain.

Charles Barton said...

Robert, irrigation can be made much more efficient, through advanced water conservation techniques like drip irrigation, more precise fertilizer management and urban sewage water recycling for agricultural purposes.

LarryD said...

Thorium reactors are breeders, since the naturally available thorium isotope is fertile, not fissionable. And a molten salt fueled reactor can use unenriched uranium along with thorium in its fuel.

It all comes down economics, if extracting uranium from the brine after desalinization makes the reactor cheaper to run, it makes sense. Of course, nuclear reactors aren't particularly sensitive to fuel prices anyway.

Alex P. said...

Thorium reactors (molten salt reactors, for example) can be full breeders or high conversion systems depending on the level of reprocessing/recycling we choice. In particular, in a breeder thorium and uranium could cost like gold and have pratically no impact on the kWh/energy cost - thus, including seawater uranium, if necessary - that's clearly not true for a simple high conversion (Th or U) reactor where seawater uranium has no sense at all, in my humble opinion


Blog Archive

Some neat videos

Nuclear Advocacy Webring
Ring Owner: Nuclear is Our Future Site: Nuclear is Our Future
Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet
Get Your Free Web Ring
Dr. Joe Bonometti speaking on thorium/LFTR technology at Georgia Tech David LeBlanc on LFTR/MSR technology Robert Hargraves on AIM High