Water, water everywhere? Not here in Suffolk
You turn on the tap, water flows, but for how much longer? The availability of water is something we barely give a thought to: only ten percent of people consider water shortage to be an environmental issue, yet without it, it’s curtains. According to the Environment Agency (EA), England could fail to meet national demand by 2050.
As the driest part of the country, Eastern England has been designated as a water-stressed area and future pressures include climate change, economic and housing development. Suffolk is recognised as an area of water scarcity, facing predictions of a water shortage in the coming years.
One of the principal ways of accessing water is through ‘abstraction’ – the process of extracting water from natural sources such as aquifers, rivers and lakes. In 2017, the EA said, “The confined chalk groundwater in the East Suffolk area is fully committed and no further consumptive abstraction can be considered.”
In their resource management plan, Essex and Suffolk Water (ESW) agreed with this evaluation stating, “The Essex and Suffolk supply areas are located within some of the driest areas of the country and as such face particular challenges including growing demand, uncertainty from climate change and a general lack of new intrinsic water resources.”
In fact, in 2020, a dry spring followed by a hot summer left ESW having to transport hundreds of thousands of litres of water by tanker in order to meet increased demand.
The East of England has the third fastest growing population after London and the southeast. When factoring this in with even moderate climate change, maintaining an adequate water supply from local sources may be physically and practically impossible to do.
Water shortage at Sizewell – really?
These facts seem to have gone unnoticed by the giant French company Electricité de France (EdF) which hopes to build the controversial Sizewell C nuclear plant near Leiston. It planned, more than a decade ago, to squeeze a ‘C’ plant alongside the existing and operational ‘B’ pressurised water reactor (PWR) and the now-decommissioned ‘A’ Magnox reactor.
If it were to go ahead, then during peak construction time its known potable water demand is four million litres a day in an area that is already short of water. Across the operating period of 60 years it will require 2 million litres a day.
EdF had to admit to the inquiry that its negotiations with Northumbrian Water Limited (NWL) have so far failed to secure its needs. The inability of NWL to meet EdF’s level of water demand has brought the water scarcity issue into sharp relief. NWL initially notified that EdF would have to seek other means by which to secure its potable water supply.
It was then suggested that the River Waveney – some 28 km to the north of the plant – could withstand more extraction as an alternative. Only a few years ago, the Waveney was named as the worst polluted river in the country. Like most other English rivers, it is contaminated with agricultural run-off, neonicotinoids and animal waste, as well as raw sewage. The EA are rumoured to be planning to reduce the extraction limits from the Waveney, so EdF may have to look elsewhere.
More from East Anglia Bylines
Supply difficulties … at the seaside
As a last-ditch solution EdF has now sprung a surprise by announcing that it intends to build a ‘temporary’ desalination plant to provide for its potable water requirements. Since the announcement, doubt has been cast on just how temporary the plant is likely to be: the word ‘permanent’ has appeared frequently in references to the plant, not the least by Dr Thérèse Coffey, MP for Suffolk Coastal and one of EdF’s staunchest supporters. This huge project has a price tag of £23bn and is apparently of vital importance to the government’s energy plans.
Desalination technology is complicated, environmentally damaging, controversial and entirely unfit for providing clean water to a nuclear power plant over any sort of extended period. It is a technology that EdF itself dismissed a few years ago, “due to concerns with power consumption, sustainability, cost, and wastewater discharge. The desalination process is typically energy intensive, and the discharge of brine water as a result of desalination may not be suitable for discharge through the combined drainage outfall.”
Ironically for a power station generating a thumping 3.2 Megawatts of electricity, the planned desalination plant would be powered by diesel generators.
While EdF waits for the construction of its desalination plant, water for the construction site will arrive by tanker. These vehicles will be in addition to all those associated with the construction of both the new reactor and the desalination plant. This increased volume of HGV traffic tankering in the initial water supply – hopefully only temporarily – will add to the overall CO2 burden associated with the construction of Sizewell C.
Water resources questionnaire
Given their need, it is quite extraordinary that EdF is still without a viable supply strategy, just weeks before a planning decision. NWL, the EA and EdF clearly need to settle the legalities of how to provide potable water. Will they need a new 28kms-long high pressure main? Would that meet EdF’s long-term Sizewell C requirements?
Given all these failures, it is perhaps timely that after the Environment Agency published its first National Framework for Water Resources, Water Resources East has been set up and is now soliciting feedback and ideas for their regional plan for Eastern England. They have provided a set of questions they would particularly like stakeholders (essentially anyone who uses water, privately or commercially) to answer. Sizewell has not been specifically mentioned in their initial document but would be covered by question six.
Responses must be submitted by February 28th. If you have a view and want your voice to be heard, then don’t delay.