The Future of Nuclear Desalination to Address Water Scarcity in Israel

Caroline Soane
March 27, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

History of Water Scarcity in Israel

Fig. 1: Nuclear reactor on the shore of the Caspian Sea that powers desalination. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since the beginning of the Zionist movement in the mid-20th century, access to water has been a major concern and topic of conflict in Israel and Palestine. [1] Israel's geography makes natural water sources scarce, and its embattled history with its neighboring countries have made a reliance on international source of water nearly impossible. During negotiations about the formation of Israel and the delineation of Israel-Palestine boundaries, access to water frequently became a point of contest. Zionists emphasized the importance of including the Jordan River, Mount Hermon, and the headwaters of the Jordan River. [1] Israel has naturally struggled with water supply due to due geographical limitations, but intermittent droughts over the years have exacerbated the problem and challenged the country to devise creative solutions to water scarcity. Developing public education campaigns about water conservation, using recycled water for irrigation and agriculture, and utilizing desalination have allowed Israel to survive with few natural fresh water sources. [2] Although Israel has made huge strides in desalination, the country has not yet moved towards the use of nuclear power for desalination, a method which has gained attention in other parts of the world.

Nuclear Desalination

It is estimated that 1.7 billion people around the world live in water-scarce areas. [3] Given the universal demand for water and widespread limitations in access, scientists, policymakers, and industries have explored alternative methods for obtaining water. While strategies like improving water conversation methods, managing pollution, and efficiently using reclaimed water help to address limited water resources, the creation of new sources of fresh water is also an important part aspect of the methodology. [3] Obtaining fresh water from seawater is part of these efforts. [4] Beginning in the 1960s, the prospect of using nuclear energy to desalinate water started to gain traction. The process of nuclear desalination involves converting seawater to potable water using a facility in which a nuclear reactor operates as the power source (see Fig.1). [5] A variety of methods have been developed for the desalination process, which mostly involve reverse osmosis, distillation, or a hybrid of reverse osmosis and distillation. [6] During the 1960s, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAFA) implemented studies to explore the economic and technical feasibility of implementing nuclear desalination programs. [6] The results of these studies indicated that desalinating seawater using nuclear power could be feasible technically and could also compete economically with renewable and fossil energy sources. [6] Throughout the next several decades, use of nuclear energy to desalinate water gained traction. Use of nuclear power has become increasingly attractive as conversation over limiting fossil fuels has increased. [7] Desalination in general has become a common practice worldwide over the past few decades, with desalination plants worldwide at a capacity of 80.9 million cubic meters of water desalinated per day (compared to only 5 million cubic meters/day in 1980). [8] The cost of desalinating water varies greatly between $1.70-9.50 per kgal, with cost depending on factors such as method of desalination, cost of operating desalination facilities, and salinity of water. [9] Current technologies can reject 99.70-99.75% of salt from saltwater, meaning that the average ocean water, with a salinity of 35 g/kg, can be reduced to a salinity of 87.5 mg/kg. [10,11] Certain parts of the world have researched and assessed the possibility of large-scale incorporation of nuclear desalination, including China. [12]

Does Nuclear Desalination Have a Future in Israel?

The practice of desalination has expanded in the past several decades in Israel, and currently two-thirds of the supply of household water in the country comes from desalination. [13] As the cost of desalination began to fall relative to other methods of obtaining water throughout the 1990s, the Israeli government decided in 2002 to commission the building of five new desalination facilities during the coming years. [14] Despite the massive growth in desalination throughout the country and talks of developing nuclear power plants, Israel has yet to build a desalination plant that operates on nuclear power. Because of Israel's unstable relationship with many of its neighboring countries, steps towards creating a nuclear power plant come with backlash from several parties. As techniques for nuclear desalination continue to progress and countries look for alternatives to fossil fuels, Israel may look towards harnessing nuclear energy to create potable water from seawater.

© Caroline Soane. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] B. K. Nijim, "Water Resources in the History of the Palestine-Israel Conflict," GeoJournal 21, 317 (1990).

[2] M. Chabin, "Israel to California: Here's How to Save Water," USA Today, 7 May 15.

[3] B. M. Misra, J. Kupitz. "The Role of Nuclear Desalination in Meeting the Potable Water Needs in Water Scarce Areas in the Next Decades," Desalination 166, 1 (2004).

[4] A. Jahansouz, "Nuclear Plus Desalination," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[5] "Economics of Nuclear Desalination: New Developments and Site Specific Studies," International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA-TECDOC-1561, July 2007.

[6] M. M. Megahed, "Nuclear Desalination: History and Prospects," Desalination 135, 1 (2001).

[7] D. Wilczynski. "Nuclear Desalination," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[8] S. Miller, H. Shemer, and R. Semiat, "Energy and Environmental Issues in Desalination," Energy Desal. 366, 2 (2015).

[9] J. R. Ziolkowska, "Is Desalination Affordable? - Regional Cost and Price Analysis," Water Resour. Manage. 29, 1385 (2015).

[10] M. Busch and W. Mickols, "Reducing Energy Consumption in Seawater Desalination," Desalination 165, 299 (2004).

[11] F. J. Millero et al., "The Composition of Standard Seawater and the Definition of the Reference-Composition Salinity Scale," Deep Sea Res. Pt. I 55, 50 (2008).

[12] A.-P. Avrin, G. He, and D. M. Kammen, "Assessing the Impacts of Nuclear Desalination and Geoengineering to Address China's Water Shortages," Desalination 360, 1 (2015).

[13] Z. Rinat, "Israel's Natural Water Sources Are Drying Up," Haaretz, 2 Oct 17.

[14] A. Tol, "Seeking Sustainability: Israel's Evolving Water Management Strategy," Science 313, 1081 (2006).