Fact Sheets


November 2013

Key Facts

  • Comprehensive environmental management programs will yield optimal protection when used in choosing electric generation facilities and cooling systems.
  • When considering water resources as part of this holistic approach, power generation accounts for 3.3 percent of freshwater consumption.
  • Among cooling technologies for coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants, “once-through” systems actually consume only 1 percent of the water they withdraw. Wet cooling tower systems at these facilities, on average, consume twice as much water as once-through systems.
  • Power plant cooling systems do not have an adverse impact on aquatic life, according to scientific studies.
  • Compared to other energy sources used for electricity production, nuclear power plants use moderate amounts of water and minimal land per amount of electricity produced.

Holistic Environmental Management

Electricity production and the availability of water are interdependent. While electricity generation requires water for cooling, usable water production requires substantial amounts of electricity for pumping and purification.

To manage this interdependence responsibly, a range of issues should be taken into account. Within the energy sector, these issues include the potential environmental impacts of power plant cooling systems, the environmental footprint of various energy sources, and their reliability and economics when generating electricity.

A holistic approach to environmental stewardship requires balancing the relationships among all aspects of the environment and making responsible trade-offs appropriate to the unique characteristics of each ecosystem where an electricity generation facility exists or will be developed.

This integrated approach will yield optimal results for all issues, including water use. Local ecosystem considerations include water quantity and quality, aquatic life, wildlife, land use (habitat), and air quality. These issues, in turn, affect the broader environmental issues of sustainable development, climate change mitigation/adaptation and drought alleviation.

All low-carbon energy sources—including nuclear energy and renewables—will be required for sustainable development. These energy sources must be developed in an environmentally responsible manner, taking into account environmental benefits and potential impacts, economics, and differing electricity generation attributes.

Water Use Definitions

Water use consists of two processes that can occur separately or in sequence: withdrawal and consumption. Water is withdrawn when it is removed from a water body. Withdrawn water is not necessarily lost water, as it may be returned to its original source in a manner that complies with environmental law and regulations. Water is consumed when it ceases to exist as a liquid through evaporation.

Water Consumption by Economic Sector

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, electric generation accounts for 3.3 percent of freshwater consumption, about the same percentage as the industrial sector (3.4 percent) and raising livestock (3.2 percent). The residential sector consumes 6.7 percent of freshwater, while the commercial and mining sectors consume the least, at 1.3 percent and 0.8 percent, respectively. The largest consumption of freshwater is for irrigation, at 81.3 percent.

To put residential and electric power water consumption in perspective, a typical nuclear power plant supplies 740,000 homes with all of the electricity they use while consuming 13 gallons of water per day per household in a once-through cooling system and 23 gallons per day per household in a wet cooling tower system. By comparison, the average U.S. household of three people consumes about 94 gallons of water per day.

The distinction between withdrawal and consumption is important when evaluating potential ecosystem impacts. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, power plants withdrew the second-largest amount of freshwater of all economic sectors in 1995—131 billion gallons per day. But they returned 98 percent of that water back to its natural sources.

By contrast, withdrawals for irrigation were 134 billion gallons per day, more than the electric power sector, and only 20 percent of that water was returned, making irrigation by far the single largest consumer of water resources. Residential withdrawals were 26 billion gallons per day, but only 74 percent was returned, resulting in consumption about twice that of power plants.

Electric Power Plant Cooling Systems

A power plant generates electricity by boiling water to steam, which turns a turbine that then turns a generator. Cooling systems are required to cool the steam back to water so the cycle can continue.

Most power plants use one of two types of cooling water systems. Once-through cooling withdraws water from a water body and circulates it within the plant to condense the steam from the turbine into water through heat absorption. In a wet cooling tower system, circulating water from the plant moves through the tower and is cooled by evaporation.

Water Consumption by Energy Source

For energy sources, water consumption is calculated in terms of the amount of water consumed to produce a standard measure of electricity generated—a megawatt-hour (MWh).

Nuclear energy consumes 400 gallons/MWh with once-through cooling and 720 gallons/MWh with wet cooling towers. Coal consumes less, ranging from about 300 gallons/MWh for plants with minimal pollution controls and once-through cooling to 714 gallons/MWh for plants with advanced pollution control system and wet cooling towers. Natural gas-fueled power plants consume even less, at 100 gallons/MWh for once-through, 370 gallons/MWh for combined-cycle plants with cooling towers and none for dry cooling.

Hydropower’s typical water consumption is the most significant at 4,500 gallons/MWh, due in large part to evaporation from reservoirs. Renewable energy sources such as geothermal and solar thermal consume two to four times more water than nuclear power plants.

Local Ecosystem Considerations

An examination of the specific environmental and economic issues involved in electricity generation will demonstrate the value of the holistic environmental management approach for selecting various types of electricity production and cooling system options.

Water Quantity

Considering cooling technologies for coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants, once-through systems consume 1 percent of the water they withdraw. Wet cooling tower systems, on average, consume twice as much water as once-through systems.

Water Quality (Temperature)

To ensure water quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the states regulate discharge water temperature and impurity concentrations from power plant cooling systems. States may set a discharge temperature limit. Plant operators may apply for a higher temperature limit for their facility by demonstrating through scientific evidence that the additional temperature will not adversely affect fish and wildlife. The higher temperature of water discharged by a once-through system is reduced by using cooling canals before discharge to the main water body.

Aquatic Life (Impact Studies)

Energy companies take significant steps to reduce the number of fish trapped (impinged) on or drawn (entrained) through cooling water systems. Scientific studies demonstrate that aquatic life mortality at the cooling intake structure does not have an adverse impact on aquatic life populations in the water body. This is because this mortality is a very small percentage of the overall population (roughly 1 percent) and prolific reproduction quickly replaces those individuals lost.

Aquatic Life (Mitigation Technologies)

To minimize the impact on aquatic life, power plant operators install and maintain proven fish protection technologies at cooling water intake structures. The use of a particular technology depends on the species in the habitat, the geographic location of the plant, the kind of water body, and the design and operating characteristics of the plant.

Some of these measures include physical barriers that prevent fish from entering the intake structure, such as stationary screens. Traveling screens that move above the intake structure are equipped with flushing structures to free the fish. Then collection systems such as baskets gather the fish and transport them to a recovery pond, where canals enable them to return to their habitat. Diversion systems direct fish away from the intake structure and include angled screens or louver systems that alter flow direction and velocity. Behavioral deterrents involving light or sound are also effective.

Wildlife and Habitat

According to a study commissioned and supervised by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, wind power and nuclear energy have the lowest potential life-cycle impact on wildlife of all energy sources.

Land use is an indicator of the impairment or loss of habitat for wildlife and plant life as well as potential impacts on our communities. Nuclear power plants are the most eco-efficient of any energy source, producing more electricity per amount of land required for operation.

For example, to generate the equivalent electricity of a 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant, a wind farm would have to cover about 150,000 to 180,000 acres and a solar photovoltaic park 54,000 acres. Considering actual plants in operation, the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania generates twice as much electricity on 400 acres and the Millstone nuclear plant in Connecticut twice as much on 220 acres. In other words, a nuclear power plant requires about one-third of a percent of the land required by wind power to produce the same amount of electricity.

Air Quality

Nuclear power plants produce no air emissions during operations. Many studies have demonstrated that the life-cycle CO2 emissions of nuclear power plants are comparable to or lower than renewable energy sources. In addition, during operations nuclear plants produce no nitrogen oxides (NOx), which contribute to ground-level ozone formation, a cause of respiratory ailments, or sulfur dioxide (SO2), which contributes to acid rain formation, harmful to the natural and man-made environments.

Broader Environmental Issues

Along with these local considerations, broader environmental issues also are a critical part of the decision-making process that constitutes holistic environmental management.

Climate Change Mitigation

Critical for climate change mitigation, nuclear energy generates 64 percent of U.S. emission-free electricity. All credible domestic and international carbon-reduction proposals call for the expansion of nuclear energy.

Climate Change Adaptation

Clean energy sources, by mitigating climate change, alleviate the water shortages that may be caused by climate change. Nuclear power plants can contribute to climate change adaptation by providing reliable, emission-free electricity for desalination and a low-carbon transportation sector.

Sustainable Development

According to the United Nations, sustainable development is simultaneous environmental preservation and economic progress. Looking at sustainability from an environmental viewpoint, power plants return 98 percent of the water they withdraw. They represent half of residential consumption of U.S. freshwater, while irrigation consumes by far the most freshwater.

On the economic side of sustainable development, our standard of living depends upon the availability of usable water and electricity. Fully 87 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by conventional power plants. Conversely, 80 percent of municipal water processing and distribution costs are for electricity.

Nuclear Energy in a Water-Constrained World

Despite moderate water use, nuclear power plants are a valuable option for water constrained ecosystems because they can provide large-scale, economical electricity for desalination. The Palo Verde nuclear plant, located in the Arizona desert, uses reclaimed municipal waste water from Phoenix for cooling. It produces more electricity than any other U.S. power plant. Two proposed reactors at the Turkey Point site in Florida plan to use municipal waste water for cooling systems.

Locating nuclear plants on the ocean would provide ample water supply for cooling. In fact, the Environment Agency of the United Kingdom recommends that all future nuclear plants be built on coastal sites. Such a location also provides salt water for a desalination facility, which can be located near a nuclear plant to make use of its heat or electricity.

Industry Sponsoring Cooling System R&D

The electric power industry is conducting research into new technologies for cooling power plants and using non-fresh sources of water. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is one power industry organization pursuing R&D projects as partnerships with private industry.

Examples of EPRI research projects under way to reduce cooling tower water consumption are:

  • a supplemental dry cooling system that uses refrigerant to partially cool the steam and hot water before they reach the cooling tower
  • a cooling tower that is designed to further cool the air before it cools the steam and hot water.

There are also two EPRI advanced dry cooling projects:

  • a dry cooling system with refrigerant that is driven by waste heat and solar energy
  • a dry cooling system that is run by electricity generated by the waste heat of the plant.