The trouble with water

Gee, droughts and floods all happening at the same time.  Because of climate change? Or just newsworthy consequences of ordinary weather?  Some European rivers are running so low they’re losing their navigability.  Kentucky and Virginia have been socked with torrential downpours resulting in immense property damage and loss of life.  In California, where drought is a cyclical inevitability, Governor Hair Gel is talking up water desalination… as if the electrical grid isn’t challenged enough already.

Just to be clear, water is not really consumed… it just gets perpetually redistributed.  Historian and apostate Communist Karl Wittfogel attributed the invention of government to the need for macro-engineered irrigation systems, originally in China.  Also, Roman aqueducts remain quite the wonder of antiquity. 

Now, back to desalination.  It has become an attractive option where there are coastal deserts.  Long growing seasons combined with imported water are used to produce agricultural abundance -- as in California’s Imperial Valley -- where the water comes from the Colorado River.  The Colorado’s watershed, however, is experiencing a drought of its own, shrinking Lake Mead to the point where the bodies of Las Vegas mob hits are being exposed.  Meanwhile, Israel is utilizing desalination quite profitably, since electricity is cheaper there than in California. 

Because of the above, one cannot escape considering nuclear power as a significant ingredient of an improved future.  There’s a quiet trend in this direction as Gov. Newsom has just announced his intention to extend the operating life of the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility for five to ten years.  Diablo Canyon produces about 9% of California’s power… and squeals of opposition to Newsom’s plan were quick to come from the usual suspects. 

Not only is nuclear power free of carbon, but the cost of the fuel is insignificant when looking at the operating budget of a generating plant.  Amortizing the cost of construction is much more important and more consistent and predictable when compared to the volatile price of natural gas.  And the continuing drumbeat of anti-fossil fuel sentiment, combined with the gathering realization that “renewables” have, at best, limited significance in overall energy policy, leaves few, if any, other options.  Hence the peeling away of formerly staunch opponents of “Our Friend the Atom.”

The recently cobbled together boondoggle, euphemistically known as “The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022,” includes subsidies for carbon-free electrical generation, including nuclear.  The term “next generation” is bandied about and typically means “high temperature” liquid-sodium reactors.  These produce much less “hot” waste, but cost a lot more to construct than water-cooled reactors, hence the demand for using taxpayer funds to tweak the economics of the concept.

Just emerging, again, is the gathering interest in water desalination via reverse osmosis.  Should electricity become significantly more plentiful, then so may water,  regardless of local rainfall.  And, as Wittfogel suggested, water and politics are deeply intertwined.  Also realizing the magical thinking that goes into many “green” energy projects, serious underperformance is likely to occur and be intentionally overlooked.  One good idea being included in the mix, however, is the replacement of old coal-fired plants with nuclear at the same location.  The ostensible political benefit would be to keep the same workers employed.  But, also, the wiring into the grid is already in place.

Old guard environmentalists are typically hostile to what they call the “techno-fix,” revealing their Luddite tendencies.  Ramping up nuclear to, among other things, turn sea water into potable water, while coincidently reducing carbon emissions, is nothing more than the efficacious use of technology to solve problems.  Such is the nature of human civilization -- from air travel to antibiotics, refrigerated food storage to CAT scans.  After all, living in a cave was never all that great… unless you were a bat.

Image: Ian Abbott

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