Glacier Power

The big picture

1 min read

Iceland is a world leader in renewable energy, providing virtually all of its electricity and heating from hydroelectric and geothermal sources. The country’s renewable reserves were recently estimated at 50 000 gigawatt-hours per year--more than five times as much as the nation’s total electricity use of 8500 GWh in 2006. But as an island country, Iceland would face difficult challenges in exporting energy. So instead, the country’s government is importing manufacturers that need energy.

That’s the idea behind the Kárahnjúkar hydropower project, set to come on stream in sparsely ­populated eastern Iceland this month. To power the complex, engineers built three large dams to channel the water from two glacial rivers through a 72-kilometer network of steel-reinforced tunnels to the hydroelectric plant shown here. All the power from the project then flows 29 km more to a brand-new aluminum smelter owned by Pittsburgh-based Alcoa. Although the power plant is greenhouse gas�free, surveys have found that many Icelanders are bothered by the environmental impact of the new 57â''square-kilometer reservoir and worry that the Kárahnjúkar project is just the beginning of further exploitation of their environment and energy resources.

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An illustration of pipes going around from hot to cold behind a chinese animal statue on a pedestal.
MCKIBILLO

Jutting out from the coast of China’s Fujian province, Changbiao Island may seem small and unremarkable. It is anything but. This is where the China National Nuclear Corp. is building two fast-neutron nuclear breeder reactors, the first of which is slated to connect to the grid in 2023, the second in 2026. So China could start producing weapons-grade plutonium there very soon.

They are called breeder reactors because they produce more nuclear fuel than they consume. According to Chinese authorities, the ones on Changbiao are civilian power reactors, designed to generate 600 megawatts of electricity each, which amounts to a little more than 1 percent of the total capacity of China’s nuclear power sector. But each reactor could also yield up to 200 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium each year, enough for about 50 nuclear warheads—which is making nuclear-arms-control experts in Western countries nervous.

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