Prospects for Nuclear Desalination

Matters of Dollars and Sense: Prospects for Nuclear Desalination

Nuclear techniques can be used to economically turn seawater into fresh drinking water.

Designers of tomorrow's nuclear power plants are more closely eyeing the developing world, by crafting reactors that can serve a dual purpose -- to produce electricity and economically turn seawater into fresh drinking water. The twin production system is known as "nuclear desalination".

Economics holds the key to the future of nuclear desalination, experts say, with advanced reactor designs now promising reduced costs in turning seawater into freshwater. For developing countries facing water crises, it is a major drawing card.

At an international conference on nuclear desalination, held in Morocco, 16-18 October 2002, specialists from more than 35 countries assessed global developments, including the prospects for nuclear plants. Participants heard that advanced High-Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactor designs were a competitive, safe and cleaner alternative to conventional fossil-fueled plants. As well as generating electricity, when coupled with a desalination facility the reactors could produce freshwater for about a dollar for two cubic meters.

India aims to have its demonstration desalination plant being built at Kalpakkam in the southeast of the country, operating by March 2003. The jury is still out on its cost effectiveness, as it uses an older model heavy water reactor. It will, however, provide training and research in finding solutions to the freshwater shortages facing the people of southern India.

The IAEA's Mr. Mabrouk Methnani, a technical officer in the IAEA Section on Nuclear Power Technology Development, said in the past, designers of nuclear reactors did not account for the developing world. "No emphasis was made to coupling a desalination unit with the reactor. The picture is changing, with small and medium reactors being developed for this purpose," he said.

The conference was told that Pakistan intends to tackle its freshwater shortages using nuclear desalination, with plans to have a facility operating by 2005. The IAEA has been requested to provide technical assistance, as it has done with India.

The conference was organized by two non-governmental organizations -- the World Council of Nuclear Workers (WONUC) and the Moroccan Association of Nuclear Engineers (AIGAM) -- with the IAEA and the World Water Council playing cooperative roles. At the conference, Agency experts hosted a day-long session on "Advances in Nuclear Desalination". The session was largely technical in nature, emphasizing technology features, including design, coupling, economics and safety aspects of nuclear desalination plants. Many authors referred to the IAEA programme known as DEEP -- which stands for the Desalination Economic Evaluation Programme -- as their main tool for analyzing nuclear desalination and called for further development of it. DEEP is the only existing tool that provides initial estimates of the costs of nuclear desalination verses conventional desalination.

Last update: 12 November 2014