|Can Nuclear Solve the Global Water Crisis? - April 2, 2010|
If a person doesn't drink clean water they will be dead in less than three days. That's why water is the most valuable commodity there is.
Lake Mead: The water level in Lake Mead, which supplies more than 22 million people in the US, has been falling for some time. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
As the global population expands, demand for water for agriculture and personal use will increase dramatically, but there could be a solution that will produce clean drinking water and help reduce carbon emissions as well. That process is nuclear desalination.
Many areas of the world are suffering from a water crisis – and it's not just arid, developing countries that are suffering. The Western US is particularly vulnerable and its water crisis is getting more severe by the day.
The water in Lake Mead, and the Colorado River which feeds it, has been falling for some time. It is slowly running dry due to overuse. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography believes there is a 50pc chance that the lake will be completely dry by 2021 if climate change continues as expected and future water usage is not curtailed.
Water is so important that, as a population grows and demand increases, there is a strong chance of conflict in the future.
According to the World Water Council, 260 river basins are shared by two or more countries.
"In the absence of strong institutions and agreements, changes within a basin can lead to transboundary tensions," the Council said. "When major projects proceed without regional collaboration, they can become a point of conflicts, heightening regional instability."
The World Water Council cites the Parana La Plata in South America, the Aral Sea, the Jordan and the Danube as examples.
It's not just tensions between countries that are a potential problem. Civil unrest caused by scarcity has already started.
In India on December 3, one man was killed and dozens injured during a protest over water rationing in Mumbai following the country's poor Monsoon. The prospect of further water riots is very real.
However, nuclear energy could help provide the solution for this thorny issue.
Oil-rich Middle Eastern nations are rushing to build new nuclear plants.
Anwar Gargash, a foreign affairs minister in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), said last month that nuclear power was "best able" to meet future power demand in his country. Demand for electricity is expected to double by 2020.
This followed comments from Saudi Arabia, which said it planned to generate up to a quarter of its electricity from nuclear power within the next 15 years.
Everyone thinks the trend for oil-rich nations to move towards nuclear power generation is about limiting domestic consumption so they can boost oil exports. However, that's just part of the story.
Saudi Arabia, for example, has very little water – and global warming is likely to make this situation much worse. This is a major problem because Saudi Arabia is about to see its population explode.
The overwhelming majority of the Saudi people are young. Almost 40pc of its population is under the age of 14, with just 2.5pc being in the over 65 bracket. This means its population is growing at about 2pc per year – and as the young start to have families of their own, the rate of population growth will increase.
In fact, many of the nations that are predicted to have the strongest growth in population over the next years are the areas where the water crisis is most acute.
For example, the UAE has the largest growth rate of any nation in the world – at 3.69pc, according to data compiled by the US government.
Nuclear reactors can be used to generate electricity – but they can also be used to desalinate water.
Nuclear desalination is not a new idea – it's a proven technology, thanks to Kazakhstan.
A single nuclear reactor at Aktau on the shore of the Caspian Sea successfully produced up to 135 megawatts of electricity and 80,000 cubic metres of potable water a day between 1972 and 1999, when it was closed at the end of the reactor's life.
Water has also been desalinated using nuclear reactors in India and Japan.
The problem with desalination is that it is very energy intensive. Most desalination today uses fossil fuels, contributing to carbon emissions.
However, because nuclear power generation does not emit carbon, it is a clean and efficient way of producing the most important commodity around. For countries experiencing rapid population growth, it could be a lifesaver.