Waxman, Rush Call For Hearing on Climate Change and Energy Production

Michigan's Palisades Nuclear Power Plant uses Lake Michigan's water to cool its core. | Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In response to a troubling Washington Post article on how climate change might impede our ability to generate electrical power, Los Angeles Representative Henry Waxman and Representative Bobby Rush of Illinois are calling for Congressional hearings on the nations' power plants and their vulnerability to shocks from a warming world.

In a letter to the chairs of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and its Energy and Power subcommittee, Waxman and Upton cite a number of recent cases of power plants being forced to either shut down or cut back on output when water in nearby lakes, bays or rivers became too warm to cool the plants.

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The Washington Post article to which Waxman and Rush refer described the pervasive effects of the recent record-breaking heat wave and drought on power generation with fossil-fueled and nuclear plants, as well as some of the western U.S.'s largest hydroelectric generating facilities. Both Lake Mead and Lake Powell, reservoirs on the Colorado River that feed turbines at Hoover and Glen Canyon dams (respectively), are at half their capacity this year. The Post also noted that lower levels in the Mississippi River have made it harder to barge coal to Midwestern coal-fired plants.

In their letter, Waxman and Rush focus mainly on cooling water for nuclear power plants. According to the letter, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry nukes had to dial down production for a while in the summers of 2010 and 2011 when water in the Tennessee River's reservoirs got too warm to cool the reactors' cores. In August, one of two nuclear power plants at Connecticut's Millstone Power Station had to shut down entirely: Millstone relies for cooling on water from Long Island Sound, and its two operating plants were designed to use seawater as warm as 75°F, once a rare occurrence. In August the average water temperature in the Sound near Millstone's water intakes was two degrees above that maximum, and Millstone's Unit 2 was shut down for two weeks.

Waxman and Rush say that a fifth of the nation's nuclear power plants are in areas hit hard by heat and drought, and that 102 of the U.S. "fleet" of 104 nukes rely on lakes and rivers for cooling.

Waxman and Rush are the ranking Democratic members of the Energy and Commerce Committee and its Energy and Power Subcommittee, respectively, which are chaired by GOP members Fred Upton and Ed Whitfield -- also respectively. Which would put GOP members of Congress in the position of overseeing hearings on climate change and its threat to power companies, which tend to be large corporations standing to lose a great deal of profits if their plants are shut down more often.

It will be interesting to see how the GOP committee chairs negotiate this possible conflict between their political and fundraising bases.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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