LAKE NORMAN, N.C. - Nuclear reactors across the Southeast could be forced to throttle back or temporarily shut down later this year because drought is drying up the rivers and lakes that supply power plants with the cooling water they need to operate.
Utility officials say such shutdowns probably wouldn't result in blackouts. But they could lead to shockingly higher electric bills for millions of Southerners, because the region's utilities could be forced to buy expensive replacement power from other energy companies.
Already, there has been one brief drought-related shutdown, at a reactor in Alabama over the summer.
"Water is the nuclear industry's Achilles' heel," said Jim Warren, executive director of N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, an environmental group critical of nuclear power. "You need a lot of water to operate nuclear plants. This is becoming a crisis."
An Associated Press analysis of the nation's 104 nuclear reactors found that 24 are in areas experiencing the most severe levels of drought.
All but two are built on the shores of lakes and rivers and rely on submerged intake pipes to draw billions of gallons of water for use in cooling and condensing steam after it has turned the plants' turbines.
Because of the yearlong dry spell gripping the region, the water levels on those lakes and rivers are getting close to the minimums set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Over the next several months, the water could drop below the intake pipes altogether. Or the shallow water could become too hot under the sun to use as coolant.
"If water levels get to a certain point, we'll have to power it down or go off line," said Robert Yanity, a spokesman for South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., which operates the Summer nuclear plant, outside Columbia, S.C.
Extending or lowering the intake pipes is not as simple at it sounds and wouldn't necessarily solve the problem. The pipes are usually made of concrete, can be up to 18 feet in diameter, and can extend up to a mile. Modifications to the pipes and pump systems, and their required backups, can cost millions and take several months. If the changes are extensive, they require an NRC review that itself can take months or longer.