Water, uranium and nuclear power - short summary

Jim Green

National nuclear campaigner - Friends of the Earth, Australia

[email protected]


A number of problems associated with the nuclear industry are much-discussed – the repeatedly demonstrated link between "peaceful" nuclear programs and weapons proliferation, the nuclear waste legacy, and the small risk of catastrophic accidents.

Less well understood are the various impacts of uranium mines and nuclear facilities on water resources.

Water & Nuclear Power Plants

* Nuclear power plants consume large amounts of water – 20-83% more than coal-fired plants. Water consumption for nuclear reactors is typically 13-24 billion litres per year, or 35-65 million litres per day. Conversely, the water consumption of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency/conservation measures is negligible or zero.

* Water outflows from nuclear plants expel relatively warm water which can have adverse local impacts in bays and gulfs, as can heavy metal and salt pollutants. The warming effect is particularly problematic if exacerbated by heat waves. For example, a number of European reactors had to be taken offline during a heat wave in 2006, and others had to operate at reduced power.

* Water problems in Australia would be exacerbated by nuclear power. Current examples include the problems in Queensland – pumping water to a (coal-fired) power plant because of dwindling local water supplies, the likelihood of increased prices for electricity, and an increased likelihood of blackouts, and increased competition for scarce water resources.

* Another set of problems will arise for coastal nuclear plants as sea levels rise.

Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plants

* The largest commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing plants, in France and the UK, are major sources of radioactive marine pollution.

* Many European countries have for many years been calling for a sharp reduction in radioactive emissions from the reprocessing plants in France and the UK.

Roxby Downs: The GAB Grab

* The daily extraction of 35 million litres of Great Artesian Basin water for the Roxby Downs mine in South Australia has destroyed some of the precious Mound Springs and adversely impacted on others.

* Also controversial is the arrangement whereby BHP Billiton pays nothing for this massive water take.

Roxby Downs: Desalination

* There are concerns about the potential impacts on marine life and fishery operations of a proposed desalination plant in the Spencer Gulf region of South Australia. The plant would produce up to 120 million litres of water daily, most of it for the planned expansion of the Roxby Downs mine.

Beverley In-situ Leach Uranium Mine

* Debates over the the environmental impacts of mining typically revolve around the risk of environmental pollution. There is no such debate with the Beverley uranium mine in South Australia. Mining company Heathgate Resources pollutes the aquifer with heavy metals, acid and radionuclides as a routine aspect of its operations, and is under no obligation to rehabilitate the aquifer.

Ranger Uranium Mine
* An increasing series of spills, leaks, incidents and reporting failures since 2000 have undermined the credibility of both mining company Energy Resources of Australia and the current environmental protection framework and highlighted serious regulatory deficiencies.

* The incidents are part of a litany of operational errors and procedural failures at ERA's Ranger operation. Whilst some of these are not of great individual impact, others are. Cumulatively they document a pattern of systemic under-performance and non-compliance and highlight the growing credibility gap that exists between ERA's self promotion and the reality of its performance.