Demystifying Nuclear Power: Water and Life on Earth – How Much Does It Matter?

written by Maggie Gundersen, President of Fairewinds Energy Education

“Water makes life as we know it possible. Every drop cycles continuously through air, land, and sea, to be used by someone (or something) else ‘downstream.’ Water covers 70% of Earth’s surface, but only 3% is fresh, and only a fraction of one percent supports all life on land. Climate change and growing populations are increasing the pressures on that reserve. By using water more wisely, we can make sure there’s enough to share with all living things. 

It’s Water that is the priority.” 
[American Museum of Natural History]

Google “water” and “life”, and you will find many science sources that talk about water. I especially liked the aforementioned quote because the American Museum of Natural History is part of American culture and our history on this beautiful continent. 

I think about water a lot. It is needed to sustain all of our lives, and yet we sit by as modern day industries, agriculture practices, and mining techniques decimate our limited water supply. Atomic power plants use more water per kilowatt of energy produced than any other form of electric generation, fracking is contaminating aquifers, mining is contaminating aquifers, rivers, and entire lakes, and the giant agribusiness form of farming in the US is irrigating its crops using wasteful spraying techniques that were outmoded decades ago – just look at Israel to see how irrigation and farming go hand in hand with minimal water use.

Ten days ago we returned from a month-long speaking tour of California. Driving more than 1200 miles, I saw some of the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen, yet the drought was obvious almost every where we went.

Beginning near Truckee, California, the rest stops posted notices alerting visitors to the drought impacting the state. Visitors were implored to save water however possible, and bathroom signs said, “If it is yellow, let it mellow; if it is brown, flush it down.” That was an old adage I know from visiting rural family camps with limited wells and septic systems. Wherever we stayed, throughout our entire trip, people were conserving water and very conscious of doing their part to help California during this time of drought.

Rivers were low; ponds and lakes were totally dry, yet the industrial agribusiness farms we passed were using the outmoded spray irrigation systems that waste tons of water across our country every day. Drip irrigation would assure adequate water for all and stop depleting California’s precious aquifers.

We drove from Truckee to L.A. for a combination of seven speaking engagements, several filmmaker interviews, and meetings with colleagues, and everywhere we saw the same patterns.  When we drove down Route 1 along the California Coast, we stopped and walked along the shore of the beautiful Pacific Ocean. I found myself wondering how the Pacific Ocean will survive now that scientists, like Wood Hole Oceanographic Institute, have found that the Pacific Ocean is showing signs of radioactive contamination as a result of the ongoing atomic disaster from the triple meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi atomic reactors.

Like Vermont where I live, the California I saw on this trip has a beautiful rugged landscape.  My previous excursions to California were limited to San Francisco and L.A., so I was delighted by the gorgeous hiking trails and vistas encountered on this trek. In Vermont, I am a localvore, a person eating food grown and produced locally. I loved all the locally-sourced organic food I had the opportunity to enjoy throughout California, and some of the fruits and vegetables were entirely new to me, like the amazing bright orange persimmons I enjoyed with local Sonoma County cheeses. 

One morning, as I was leaving for a meeting near Los Osos, I was dismayed to see nearby factory farms being heavily sprayed by men on trucks. I am not talking about the irrigation and wasting water, but chemical spraying so heavy and contaminating that the men doing it were wearing hazmat suits and respirators, something I only think about in terms of atomic power plants and radioactive waste storage sites.

Two thoughts come to mind since returning to Vermont, first how many similarities there are between our two states – recognizing of course that Vermont is very tiny and California is much larger than many countries in the world in terms of land size, population, and gross national product. The second is that both states continue to use brilliant entrepreneurial and scientific creative energy to find alternative solutions to the real economical and environmental issues facing our world today. 

With creative solutions in mind, I want to share two new projects taking place in Vermont with all of you – both projects revolve around protecting our water supplies and cleaning up the environment, as well as enriching our soils with healthy nutrients.

The first project, located in Brattleboro, Vermont, is the Rich Earth Institute, co-founded by Kim Nace and Abraham Noe-Hays in 2012, which “studies community-scale ‘pee-cycling’ as a viable — even attractive — alternative to what we have come to accept as our waste stream. It’s the nation’s first such pilot program” according to an article in Vermont’s Burlington Free Press (BFP).

“Furthermore, research at the institute, partially funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, demonstrates that pasteurized urine is a first-class fertilizer on nearby hayfields.

… In earlier centuries, sanitation and agriculture played a complementary role in human ecology, Nace said, and some so-called “developing” rural societies haven’t forgotten the lesson.

The rest of us have grown accustomed to flushing down pee after pee with gallon after gallon of treated water.” [Emphasis Added]

Imagine the water savings for all of us – nationally in areas of drought like California, in cities and towns with flooding sewer issues due to rising water tables, – and on a personal basis as we pay to drill more and more wells or pay exorbitant water bills for city water services that face either scarcity or contamination issues.

Early in the article, the Burlington Free Press asks us, “Is urine diversion far-fetched?”

BFP closes with, “Consider the source of our food and our health, [Kim] Nace tell us: ‘It’s arrogant to be peeing in water.’”  After learning how much water is wasted flushing pee, I would agree with her. 

What about Nace’s solution of using urine’s harvested resources of phosphorus and nitrogen to fertilize farmers’ fields? These elements are critical to healthy plant growth and are used prominently in garden and crop fertilizers. Why not substitute with natural phosphorus and nitrogen and clean up a terrible waste streamrather than contaminate pristine farmland with chemicals so toxic that workers must wear hazmat suits and respirators?  

Since newborn babies today have an average of more than 232 different chemicals in their umbilical cord blood according to reports written in Scientific American (2013) and discussed on CNN (2010), shouldn’t we do all that we can to keep these chemicals out of our food and water supplies? Why then are we using them to fertilize our farms?

Read Rich Earth Institute’s original paper here.

Not only is there a shortage of water in many locations around the earth, but much of our water is contaminated with algae blooms or other major contaminants. Are there solutions?

Vermont’s second project serves three goals: it generates electricity, purifies the water of Lake Champlain (8 miles wide and 100 miles long), and produces phosphorus as a natural fertilizer for local farms.  The innovative Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest utility, has devised and is constructing the new manure digester, according to Vermont’s Burlington Free Press.

“Besides the pollution reduction benefits, the digester will generate enough electricity to power about 700 homes a year by using the methane gas from the manure.” 

“Phosphorus-laden runoff of rain and snowmelt from farms, roads and parking lots, and discharges from municipal wastewater treatment plants feed toxic algae blooms in the lake.

… The digester process will remove much of the phosphorous from the manure and the remaining fiber will be turned into animal bedding, which farmers say has become more costly and harder to get.

The harvested phosphorus, which is a necessary nutrient for growing corn and other crops, could also become a valuable commodity, GMP officials and farmers say. GMP is looking to sell it, possibly to composters for use in areas that have been depleted of the nutrient.”

Compare such innovative projects in Vermont, even from utilities, with the push back we saw from California utilities, like Pacific Gas and Electric, that are denying electric grid connections to individuals for solar panels and/or wind turbines. And, all the while PG&E is using ratepayer dollars to fund their ongoing pursuit of atomic powered electric generation via a life extension for the aging Diablo Canyon Atomic Power Reactor situated atop three earthquake faults [San Andreas, Shoreline, and Hosgri] and connected to the major Cascadian Subduction Zone.

Here’s to entrepreneurial environmental ingenuity with corporations like the small Rich Earth Institute non-profit and Green Mountain Power in Vermont, and Elon Musk’s Tesla Corp of Palo Alto, California with its Powerwall – of which Green Mountain Power will be the first utility to install!  May 2016 bring us all a plethora of like minded CEOs and founders.