Soapbox: Nuclear reactor could be answer to desalination

Beach-goers walk on the sand near the San Onofre nuclear power plant in 2011 before it was shuttered.
Beach-goers walk on the sand near the San Onofre nuclear power plant in 2011 before it was shuttered. Associated Press file

Returning to California after five years on the East Coast, I am shocked by the toll inflicted on our beautiful state by the historic drought. However, I am less surprised by the slipshod political and social response to the dire situation.

Even if the drought were to end today, we still face the harsh reality that our society is severely unprepared to deal with a long-term water shortage. However, there is a revolutionary solution to our water needs that has gone almost entirely unnoticed.

Let’s talk about a technology that has the potential to fill your pool and water your lawn and put food on your table. It is called nuclear desalination, and it uses an advanced nuclear reactor to clean and remove salt from seawater.

Traditional desalination is accomplished using giant filters, which is extremely expensive, or by boiling the water using fossil fuels for heat, which is also costly and bad for the environment. Nuclear desalination uses a small nuclear reactor, similar in size to those on submarines, to quickly boil enormous quantities of seawater. This method is clean, efficient and sustainable.

Nuclear technology has a bad reputation. From Chernobyl to Fukushima, there have been accidents, though much of the concern is fear of the unknown. At its most basic form, a nuclear reactor is a giant heating element. In a traditional nuclear power plant, water flows over a superheated reactor core. The water then boils, and the steam is used to drive a turbine. In a nuclear desalination plant, you are finished at step two.

What makes nuclear desalination so appealing is the potential to drive costs well below traditional desalination. Another factor is the remarkable progress in modern reactor designs. Today’s small modular reactors are compact, manufactured off-site to minimize security risks and are designed with the latest safety features.

However, where would we build such a facility?

Picking a location is a major challenge for any new development, let alone a nuclear desalination plant. But what if there was a nuclear power facility sitting dormant, waiting to be repurposed into the world’s most advanced nuclear desalination plant?

There is – the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

The plant was closed by Southern California Edison in 2012 because of faulty turbines. However, the existing reactor infrastructure remains intact and presents a perfect opportunity.

We must take bold action to ensure our water needs are met. We need to create sustainable and reliable new sources of potable water. Nuclear desalination is far and away the best option we have to achieve this goal.

Alexander Balkin is an attorney in San Diego County and former analyst for the chief financial officer of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the position of the NRC or any other government agency.