Nuclear Desalination to Combat Water Scarcity 

18 June 2024 - // Features
Dorottya Kaló
Communication Trainee, REVOLVE

Innovative solutions in the quest for clean drinking water 

Water is scarce, even though around 71% of the Earth is comprised of it, but salinity is a grand obstacle to overcome for living beings to make use of all the benefits of water. Interest in using nuclear energy to produce drinking water has gradually increased in the past decades, especially affecting low-income communities across the globe.  

Climate change and increased awareness of the impact of fossil fuel usage further motivate sectors to invest in nuclear energy, undermining the inner fear of past events where reactors caused a disturbance in millions of people’s lives. 

The demand for freshwater is increasing while we are also polluting, poorly managing, and misusing our freshwater resources at an alarming rate. As we look for sustainable solutions to this growing crisis, nuclear desalination emerges as a viable and promising alternative, capable of supplying freshwater with a lower environmental impact.  

The Mechanics of Nuclear Desalination  

The extent to which seawater can be turned potable has likely been investigated since ancient times,  and on a small scale with little return was applied for hundreds of years. Sailors and regional practices, such as those in ancient China using sea ice in irrigation, applied primitive desalination techniques to meet their water needs. During the Industrial Revolution, significant improvements led to the establishment of commercial desalination plants by the late 19th century.  

The technologies and mechanization of the process along with strategic legislative efforts caused an increase in desalination plants in many water-scarce regions worldwide. Since 1989, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has investigated the matter, showing how it can be a technically and economically viable solution, combining the principles of nuclear energy and desalination technology to create an efficient and sustainable water source. 

Desalination plants are currently considered one of the most expensive methods of creating drinking water. 

Seawater desalination is a good option for meeting the current and future demands of freshwater in water-stressed regions with proximity to the sea. However, it is an energy-intensive process, leading to significant differences in applicability while also depending on the arid region’s abundance of fossil fuels – whose intensive use could lead to further water pollution.  Also, if the distribution network of desalinised water is not sufficient, it can lead to substantial loss of water due to evaporation and seepage. 

Desalination plants are currently considered one of the most expensive methods of creating drinking water, mainly due to the method that pumps large volumes of water across semi-permeable membranes in a high-pressure environment. This movement of molecules, also referred to as reverse osmosis, separates freshwater from salty water (brine) and minerals. Another method uses distillation but is even more costly. 

Advantages of Nuclear Desalination  

Nuclear desalination offers several advantages over conventional methods, particularly when it comes to economic and environmental benefits. The process can be more cost-effective in the long term, especially in regions where fossil fuels are scarce or expensive – not to mention the sheer benefits of reducing the use of such polluting energy sources. By harnessing the power of nuclear reactors, desalination plants can operate continuously, providing a reliable and consistent supply of freshwater. 

Nuclear desalination offers several advantages over conventional methods, particularly when it comes to economic and environmental benefits. 

One of the primary economic benefits of nuclear desalination is its potential for reduced operational costs. Although the initial investment in nuclear infrastructure is high, the long-term savings from lower fuel costs and increased efficiency could offset these expenses, with the cogeneration of electricity and desalinated water significantly reducing the overall cost of water production. Consequently, cogeneration plants, which simultaneously produce electricity and freshwater, are becoming more common due to their enhanced efficiency and dual purpose. 

From an environmental perspective, nuclear desalination has a lower carbon footprint compared to fossil fuel-powered desalination plants and this reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is crucial in the fight against climate change. Additionally, nuclear power generates minimal air and water pollution if waste management protocols are properly followed. The use of advanced devices, such as water-cooled reactors, further increases the plant’s environmental benefits by improving safety and efficiency. 

Nuclear desalination can contribute to energy security and diversification by integrating nuclear energy into the water supply system. Therefore, countries can reduce their reliance on imported fossil fuels, enhancing their energy independence. This is particularly important for regions with limited natural resources or unstable energy markets. 

Current and Future Projects  

Nuclear desalination has been successfully implemented in several countries, with promising results. Kazakhstan, India, and Japan have accumulated over 120 reactor years of experience in nuclear desalination, demonstrating its technical feasibility and economic viability. Existing projects, such as the BN-350 fast reactor in Kazakhstan, have provided valuable insights into the practical applications of nuclear desalination. This reactor, which operated from 1972 to 1999, was used for both electricity generation and desalination, producing 80,000 cubic meters (m³) of freshwater per day. 

The success of this project highlights the potential for nuclear desalination to meet the water needs of arid regions.

Fragmented arid soil. Photo: Micaela Parente / Unsplash

In India, the Kalpakkam nuclear desalination plant has been operational since 2002. This plant uses a hybrid process, combining reverse osmosis and multi-stage flash distillation, to produce 6,300 m³ of freshwater per day. The success of the Kalpakkam plant has spurred interest in expanding nuclear desalination capabilities by two additional desalination plants. 

Japan also explored the potential of nuclear desalination, with the Oarai Multi-purpose Reactor (OMR) being used for experimental desalination studies. These studies have demonstrated the technical feasibility of nuclear desalination and have provided valuable data for future projects.

Challenges and Considerations  

Despite the promising potential of nuclear desalination, several challenges and considerations must be addressed to ensure its widespread adoption and success. Safety concerns are paramount, given the potential risks associated with nuclear energy; for example, the possibility of nuclear accidents, though rare, necessitates stringent safety protocols and effective risk management strategies.  

The integration of renewable energy sources with nuclear desalination could further enhance its economic and environmental benefits. 

Public perception and acceptance of nuclear energy are significant obstacles. Past nuclear incidents, such as those at Chernobyl and Fukushima, have left a lasting impact on public opinion, often leading to resistance against new nuclear projects. Effective communication, transparency, and education are essential to address these concerns and highlight the benefits and safety measures associated with nuclear desalination. 

Regulatory and political hurdles also pose challenges to the development and implementation of nuclear desalination projects. The nuclear regulatory framework varies significantly across countries, and international cooperation and harmonization of regulations are necessary to facilitate the global expansion of nuclear desalination.  

While the IAEA has extensively supported member states in testing and implementing innovations related to nuclear desalination, political will and support are crucial for the successful deployment of these projects, as they require substantial investment and long-term commitment. 

The Doel Nuclear power plant in Belgium. Photo: Frédéric Paulussen / Unsplash

Economic viability is another critical consideration. While nuclear desalination can be cost-effective in the long run, the initial capital investment is high.The integration of renewable energy sources with nuclear desalination could enhance the economic and environmental benefits of the process. However, assessing the specific needs of target regions, including both electricity and water requirements, is essential to justify the investment. 

Potential Impact on Global Water Scarcity  

To understand the severity of the issue, let’s get back to some statistics. Seventy-one per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, but 97.5% of this is highly saline, and the remaining 2.5% is locked up in polar ice and glaciers. That leaves mankind with less than 1% of water which can be used for drinking, showering, watering our land—especially considering unreliable rainfall patterns—and sanitation. Of this 1%, the water is not distributed evenly either spatially or temporally. Natural water cycles can be forecasted but with an increasing population, the annual water supply per person will decrease. 

A seemingly great solution could be to produce freshwater from seawater, which by applying both evaporative and membrane processes fully meets the drinking water quality set by the World Health Organization and other standards set at a supranational level. Over 300 million people depend on desalinated water globally, and in the Middle East and North Africa, around 70% of domestic water comes from such facilities. 

Over 300 million people depend on desalinated water globally, and in the Middle East and North Africa, around 70% of domestic water comes from such facilities. 

Desalination is a safe source of water, and its quality can easily be compared to conventional water supply sources. However, long-term reliance on desalination should only occur if the required availability of water is comparable to the availability of the energy supply. Better water conservation supplies and measures such as water recycling could significantly reduce the demand for drinkable freshwater, but if these do not suffice, desalination will be an inevitable process. 

Nuclear desalination is a technically feasible and promising alternative to other water sources, particularly in regions with access to seawater. Several decades of successful operation prove that nuclear desalination could be a promising alternative to other water sources. It is technically feasible if properly managed, complies with safety standards, and, especially when built offshore, could widen the possibilities while co-generating freshwater and energy.

Therefore, advancing nuclear desalination technology and infrastructure is crucial and will necessitate international collaboration, substantial investment, and continuous commitment to meet the demands of one of humankind’s fundamental needs, that is, freshwater. 

Dorottya Kaló
Communication Trainee, REVOLVE

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