The Straits Times (Singapore)
MAY 26 1997

Promise of fresh water with help of nuclear power


By R. Senthilnathan in Vienna

A NUMBER of countries, including China, India, Japan, South Korea and Russia, which have been successful in using nuclear technology to provide fresh water, will make presentations at a meeting on this issue in South Korea this week. Organised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the week-long meeting beginning today will bring together more than 300 experts to discuss the present status of desalination using nuclear technology, and how to proceed in the future.

The meeting, in the city of Taejon, was planned after requests from a several countries which face the problem of meeting increasing demands for fresh water, said Mr Toshio Konishi of the IAEA's nuclear power technology development section.

The IAEA had been studying the feasibility of using nuclear energy for desalinating sea water in the 60s, but interest died out soon afterwards, only to be revived in 1989, fuelled largely by rapid population growth.

Mr Konishi, the main official responsible for the meeting, said that whereas world population grew three times between 1900 and 1995, water consumption had grown six times, and was set to increase further.

The world's largest desalinator is nature itself. Each year, through evaporation, about 400,000 cu km of sea water -- about 100 times the global annual water consumption -- is purified and returned to earth in form of rain, sleet or snow. However, rain is not equally distributed, so while some countries have abundant fresh water, others do not. Therefore some countries resort to water-desalination plants.

The biggest of them, capable of desalting about 500,000 cu m of sea water daily, is in Saudi Arabia.

The most commonly used fuel for the desalination plants are fossil fuels, oil gas and coal. But these are not infinite and emit relatively high amounts of greenhouse gases like nitrogen and carbon dioxide.

Even though interest in using nuclear energy for desalination has been there for years, and there are more than 400 nuclear reactors generating electricity, not many countries have used them.

The only country so far to use a nuclear reactor to desalt sea water for its population is Kazakhstan, Mr Konishi said.

Two others, India and Japan, also have nuclear power reactors desalinating water, but the water produced is used within the plants itself.

The number of countries using nuclear energy to desalinate is small but the list of those wishing to use it is longer.

Morocco is to undertake a joint study with China on a desalination plant and Indonesia has also showed an interest in using nuclear power to provide water to some of its regions.

South Korea itself is designing a 330 MW multi-purpose nuclear power plant which can also be used for desalination.

One problem with using nuclear reactors is that they are usually large -- in average with a power generating capacity of more than 400 MW.

But Mr Konishi said several countries are now working on new concepts with smaller reactors with only heat generation capacity, since desalination plants need just heat to evaporate sea water.

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