Editorial Feature

Nuclear Desalination: Providing Clean Water through Advanced Technology

A total of 70% of Earth is covered by water, but many communities have difficulty accessing drinkable water. According to the United Nations, 2.4 billion people live in water-stressed countries, with many of them being small-scale farmers who need water for growing crops, drinking, and sanitation. The problem appears only to be getting worse, as the volume of freshwater per person has decreased by 20% over the past 20 years. Causes for this include poor management, misuse, pollution, and climate change. Understandably, water scarcity is increasingly becoming a source of conflict.

water droplet, water management, water scarcity

Image Credit: 19 STUDIO/Shutterstock.com

Many potential solutions have emerged to address global water scarcity, including improving water conservation, developing water-efficient technologies, adopting more sustainable agricultural practices, infrastructure development, better public policies, ecosystem restoration, and developing alternative water sources through the use of technologies like desalination.

Understanding Nuclear Desalination

Desalinization technologies are becoming more popular as an approach to meet the challenges of regional water scarcity in locations around the world.

One approach to desalination involves reverse osmosis, where seawater is forced through a semipermeable membrane that removes the salt.

A second popular approach to desalination involves distillation. When heat is applied to seawater, it creates water vapor that can be separated from the salt and condensed. This approach is more costly than reverse osmosis, but it does produce a pure form of water. Some desalination facilities use a combination of these two techniques.

Most desalination facilities are currently powered by fossil fuels, which release significant greenhouse gas levels. Nuclear desalination is a more sustainable approach that uses heat from a nuclear power plant for reverse osmosis and distillation. This gives a nuclear power plant a secondary purpose beyond providing electricity. While nuclear desalinization is a promising approach to solving water scarcity, it is only being used in a small fraction of nuclear power plants in operation.

Advantages and Challenges of Nuclear Desalination

The most obvious advantage of nuclear desalination is that it offers electricity and access to potable water.

Nuclear desalination approaches are more financially viable than other desalination approaches, as it can achieve a significant economy of scale. Research has shown that nuclear desalination can cost less than one-half the amount of desalination powered by fossil fuels, depending on the specific approach used.

One of the biggest factors is establishing an optimal coupling method that channels steam created by nuclear power production to the desalination process. The coupling method used will vary based on the size of the reactor and the specifics of the attached desalination process.

In addition to channeling steam as efficiently as possible, it is also critical to prevent radiation from leaking into the desalination system. Conversely, the desalination system should not disrupt or compromise the power production side of such a facility.

Economic viability is another major challenge facing the greater adoption of nuclear desalination. Simply because a region needs both electricity and freshwater does not mean it is economically viable to establish a nuclear desalination plant. If a nuclear reactor is already in operation, investment costs will be limited to the desalination facility and coupling system. However, if an entire nuclear desalination plant must be built, it is critical to quantify the need for both electricity and water in the target region so that investments can be justified. It may also be necessary to conduct a licensing analysis designed to ensure the safe operation of such a facility.

Current Technological Developments and Future Prospects

With ten major projects around the world studying nuclear reactors coupled with a desalination facility, nuclear desalination is a vibrant area of research. These studies also primarily focus on improving performance and analyzing design measures that could reduce any possibility of radioactive contamination.

As for future prospects, some experts have been calling for more nuclear desalination facilities to be placed offshore, where there is easy access to seawater. Offshore nuclear desalination has already taken place in some isolated situations.

In 2013, the USS George Washington provided desalination services to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan.

In 2022, Saudi Arabia inaugurated a floating desalination plant near its al-Shuqaiq port.

While offshore desalination plants provide a significant advantage on the front end, there are challenges with pumping fresh water to shore and finding a workforce with the skills needed to work in an offshore desalination facility.

The Future of Nuclear Desalination

As the demand for freshwater continues to rise and traditional desalination methods struggle with environmental concerns and cost inefficiencies, nuclear desalination emerges as a promising alternative.

However, there are challenges to widespread adoption. Efficient coupling methods and robust safety measures are imperative to harness the steam produced by nuclear reactors for desalination without compromising either process. Economic viability remains a crucial hurdle, requiring careful analysis of the region's needs and judicious investment decisions.

Despite these challenges, ongoing research and technological developments indicate a growing interest in nuclear desalination globally. The prospect of offshore nuclear desalination adds an intriguing dimension to this field, with notable instances demonstrating its feasibility. As nations grapple with the escalating demands for both electricity and fresh water, nuclear desalination stands poised as a valuable and evolving solution.

References and Further Reading

Baraniuk, C. (2022 June 20). Could nuclear desalination plants beat water scarcity?. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-61483491

Conca, J. (2019 July 14). How 1,500 Nuclear-Powered Water Desalination Plants Could Save The World From Desertification. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2019/07/14/megadroughts-and-desalination-another-pressing-need-for-nuclear-power/?sh=2b4f0c67fdea

Foro Nuclear. (2017, October 31). Desalination with nuclear reactors generates drinking water in places where it is scarce. Foro Nuclear. https://www.foronuclear.org/en/in-depth/desalination-with-nuclear-reactors-generates-drinking-water-in-places-where-it-is-scarce

International Atomic Energy Agency. (2023). Nuclear desalination. https://www.iaea.org/topics/nuclear-technology-and-applications/energy/non-electric-applications/nuclear-desalinatio

United Nations. Clean water and sanitation. [Online] Available at: https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2023/Goal-06/.

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Brett Smith

Written by

Brett Smith

Brett Smith is an American freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Buffalo State College and has 8 years of experience working in a professional laboratory.

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