Nuclear Desalination: Future Uses of Nuclear Technology in Iran

by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi (source: AIC)
Saturday, December 20, 2014

At a recent conference on nuclear energy, Ahmad Shirzad, a reformist politician who is convinced of the net harmful effect of the nuclear program, stated: "From this well (of nuclear industry) no water comes out, not even one glass of water for the country since a decade ago." Another speaker, Tehran University professor Sadegh Zibakalam, went even further and boldly claimed that the nuclear program has no contribution to make to any type of technology in Iran. Shirzad also raised alarms about the Arak heavy water reactor by comparing it to Chernobyl and adding that he is in favor of the Western proposal to switch it to a light water reactor, presumably because the latter are safer. But, all these negative judgments are questionable.

To begin with, any comparison of Arak with Chernobyl is highly misplaced and overlooks that the Three Mile Island and Fukushima reactors (where serious nuclear accidents occurred) were all light water reactors. The Chernobyl is also referred to in the scientific community as a modified light water reactor -- that was graphite moderated , but with a water cooled reactor and like other thermal light water reactors burned uranium dioxide fuel. Suffice to say here that when one talks about light water reactors, we are dealing with water with two functions, moderation to maintain nuclear fission reaction and cooling. With a heavy water reactor, like Arak , heavy water moderates , but cooling is with (light)!water. There are today some 33 heavy water reactors in the world and they all have excellent safety record.

Second, while the Iranian concerns regarding the exorbitant costs of sanctions on the Iranian economy due to the nuclear crisis are understandable, it is important not to confuse the issues and mistake the causes and effects, or to jump to the extreme of ignoring the various advantages of nuclear energy, including in energy generation, medicine, agriculture, etc., and focusing instead on its disadvantages, some of which are imposed from the outside and are not germane to the nuclear industry.

For sure, hundreds of thousands of cancer patients who are assisted by the radio isotopes from the Tehran research reactor can fully appreciate the critical role of nuclear medicine for their health. Millions of Iranians who complain of pollution-related respiratory problems are also intuitively interested in alternative renewable energy that does not pollute the air, which is the case with nuclear power plants. In many ways, nuclear technology is an environmental-friendly technology that is superior to alternative sources, depending on where and how it is used.

For those who are concerned about power shortages and the existing gaps between a growing population and demand and supply of power generation, the role of nuclear reactors in supplying electricity, both now and in the future with the help of more reactors, is a highly pertinent question, in light of Iran's long-term 20 year developmental project that foresees a growing role for the nuclear industry as an engine of economic growth in Iran.

In addition to ignoring such concrete and multi-faceted benefits of the nuclear energy, the opponents of the nuclear program such as Mr. Shirzad and Zibakalam have also overlooked the potential future benefits, including in water production, that is one of the nation's top priorities these days. Concerning the latter, suffice to say that contrary to what Shirzad has stated mentioned above, in fact the potential contribution of the nuclear industry in tackling the country's water problem is quite promising.

Case in point, Iran today can rather easily make a big leap toward nuclear desalination, by setting up a desalination plant next to the Bushehr power plant. To elaborate, desalination is defined as the process of removing salt and other minerals from water, the primary objective being to generate potable drinking water from seawater. Today, Persian Gulf is scene to a booming desalination industry, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and UAE among the top countries in the world that increasingly rely on desalination. One of the drawbacks of this industry is however with respect to the environment, e.g., the current use of (non-renewable) gas in the desalination technology is problematic and it is estimated that when desalination is coupled with renewable energy sources, the environmental load can be reduced by over 80 percent.

A coupling of Bushehr with desalination is a worthwhile project that requires a feasibility study. A useful guide for this is the 2013 IAEA Toolkit For Nuclear Deslaination.(1) The agency has made a significant contribution by advancing our knowledge of this issue over the past decade and this particular study covers the technical and financial aspects. Clearly, nuclear desalination is on the rise around the world and Iran currently possessing the only operational reactor in Persian Gulf can be a regional pioneer.

Presently, Iran is seeking an expansion of its desalination program, with a plant in the island of Qeshm and another one planned for Bandar Abbas, wit the bid deadline set for January, 2015. But, while such efforts are timely and forward-looking, they have yet to connect the dots between desalination and nuclear energy. This is probably due to the lack of knowledge and the unavailability of information regarding the huge potential of Iran's nuclear reactors for a future co-location with desalination plants. There is no assessment of the new and emerging technologies which make nuclear-based desalination more attractive such as heat pipes and low-temperature desalination processes. The Iran Atomic Energy Organization has a critical role in spearheading the national focus on energy desalination as one of so many crucial areas of contribution by nuclear energy. Iran can then become even a major water exporter to its water-starved Persian Gulf neighbors.

In conclusion, the opponents of nuclear technology who yearn for a 'glass of water' furnished by this technology may not have to wait another decade -- to be pleasantly surprised by how wrong they are in their negative assessment of this crucial next-generation technology.

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