How Does Fracking and Nuclear Power Production Affect Water?

Energy production in America has some of the greatest impact on the environment. While the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere and the resulting issue of global warming are obvious contentions, another major issue is the sheer amount of water that needs to be used to produce energy. Two major sources of power production in the U.S. require massive amounts of water: fracking and nuclear. The result of both of these processes is the same as well, with millions of gallons of wastewater being created in the process. The question is, which process wastes more water?

There are over 500,000 active natural gas wells in the United States, with 70,000 in Pennsylvania alone. Generally, each well can be fracked up to 18 times. Considering that each frack uses about 5 million gallons of water, each well requires trillions of gallons of water during its lifetime.

\[500,000  \text  { wells} \times 5,000,000  \text  { gal} \times 18  \text  { fracks} = 45 \text { trillion gal}\]

Nuclear power plants, conversely, are not as uniform in their water usage. There are 104 nuclear power plants in the United States. Of these plants, 60 percent utilize recirculating cooling. Thus, while freshwater is consumed, it is a very limited amount. The remaining 40 percent of nuclear plants, however, utilize once through cooling. This requires water to be drawn from a freshwater source daily. After treatment, the water is then released into the original freshwater source. Nuclear plants require about 1 billion gallons of water per day for cooling.

\[40 \text { nuclear plants} \times 1 \text { billion gal} \times 365 \text { days} =14.6 \text { trillion gal}\]

To put both of these amounts in context, New York City requires about a billion gallons of water per day, or 365 billion per year. Comparatively, fracking uses about 123 times this amount, while nuclear power plants require 40,000 times more water.

\[1 \text { billion gal} \times 365 \text { days} = 365 \text { billion gal}\]

\[\frac {45 \text { trillion gal}}{365 \text { billion gal}} ≈123\]

\[\frac {14.6 \text { trillion gal}}{365 \text { billion gal}} =40\]

So clearly, fracking uses far more water than nuclear power production. But what about the adverse effects of both methods of power production? Water used for the fracking of wells is almost completely wasted. Approximately 10-30 percent returns to the surface with the gas, while the rest remains in the ground and is absorbed. The water that returns to the surface is then either disposed of or treated. Many are concerned that poorly drilled wells that are too close to groundwater sources will leak into these groundwater sources, which are especially vital for people in rural areas.

Water used in nuclear power production is all reentered into the original freshwater source. However, the treatment process greatly heats the water, with water returning to the source at 30 degrees warmer than normal. This can harm aquatic life and destabilize the ecosystem.

In terms of carbon emissions, nuclear only emits 73 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, while natural gas emits 1256 million tonnes. Nuclear is far cleaner than natural gas, but natural gas is, in turn, far cleaner than coal and oil. This is why natural gas is looked upon as the ultimate transition fuel away from fossil fuels.

Both processes have their perks. Natural gas produced by fracking releases far less carbon into the air than coal or oil. Nuclear power plants, in turn, are nearly as clean as solar, wind, and hydroelectric plants. Despite the positives in terms of protecting the atmosphere, both sides of this issue require massive quantities of water, thus resulting in similarly large amounts of wastewater. These issues should be seriously considered by state governments before allowing the construction of new nuclear power plants or the fracking of new wells.

Works Cited:

“Explore Shale. Marcellus Shale Development, Geology and Water.” Penn State Public Broadcasting, 2016. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <>.

“Greenhouse Gas Emissions Avoided through Use of Nuclear Energy.” World Nuclear Association, 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <>.

“History of Drought and Water Consumption.” City of New York, 2016. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <>.

“Hydraulic Fracturing.” Hydraulic Fracturing. Marcellus Protest, 2016. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <>.

“Number of Producing Gas Wells.” Number of Producing Gas Wells. U.S. Energy Information Administration, 29 Jan. 2016. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. <>.

“Quick Facts on Nuclear Power and Water Use.” Nuclear Power and Water 117.10 (2011): 148-49. Union of Concerned Scientists, Dec. 2011. Web. 29 Jan. 2016. <>.


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