Nuclear vs. Climate Change: Rising Seas

Rising global temperatures are already posing serious risks to nuclear plants and regulators cannot wait until sea levels rise and storm surges occur. 

Credit: Source: Power Reactor Information Systems (PRIS) Database

Note: This is part two of a two-part blog series on the impacts of climate change on nuclear power plants. Check out our first blog post on the impact of increasing ambient temperatures.

Climate action isn’t simply about reducing emissions—it’s also about addressing local environmental concerns and minimizing risks to human health and safety. With that in mind, if nuclear power is going to have a role in addressing climate change, stronger safety and environmental regulations will be needed.

Unfortunately, this approach is missing from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which in January voted in a 3-to-2 decision to water down recommendations from its own staff to reevaluate seismic and flooding hazards at nuclear sites. "This decision is nonsensical," Commissioner Jeff Baran wrote in his dissent, “Instead of requiring nuclear power plants to be prepared for the actual flooding and earthquake hazards that could occur at their sites, NRC will allow them to be prepared only for the old, outdated hazards typically calculated decades ago when the science of seismology and hydrology was far less advanced than it is today.”

The January ruling came almost eight years after staff scientists released a list of recommendations in direct response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown. With the approval (and pending approvals) this year to rollback  multiple safety regulations , the U.S. nuclear fleet, the oldest in the world, cannot afford to wait another decade to strengthen safety and environmental regulations in preparation of climate change--in this case, rising sea levels.

What are the Risks?

Nuclear power plants require huge amounts of water to prevent fission products in the core and spent nuclear fuel from overheating (incidentally making nuclear the most water intensive energy source in terms of consumption and withdrawal per unit of energy delivered). That’s why over 40 percent of the world's nuclear plants are built along the coasts, with that number rising to 66 percent for just plants under construction. Unable to run on the electricity it generates itself to power the pumps that provide cooling water to the core and to the spent nuclear fuel stored onsite, a nuclear plant must rely on the grid or backup generators to ensure cooling water circulation. Any hazard that cuts off access to those sources of power restricts access to cooling water, ultimately risking a nuclear meltdown and off-site release of radiation, as happened during the flooding of Fukushima. 

Flooding evaluations conducted by the NRC concluded that 55 of the 61 evaluated U.S. nuclear sites experienced flooding hazards beyond what they were designed to handle. Even more alarming, in 2014, the flood barriers at Florida Power & Light's St. Lucie Nuclear Plant--one of the few plants reported to be prepared for disaster but which had been missing proper seals for decades--gave way to 50,000 gallons of water after heavy rainfall.

Storm surges like the one at St. Lucie Nuclear plant and extreme weather events, as witnessed in Fukushima, pose very real risks to both operational and decommissioned plants, almost all of which (in the US) will continue to store nuclear waste onsite for decades until a permanent storage solution is found. Coupled with increasingly rising sea-levels, these risks will continue to grow. Even under a very low scenario of 1°C warming by midcentury, the 2018 U.S. National Climate Assessment reports that the “frequency, depth, and extent of both high tide and more severe, damaging coastal flooding will increase rapidly in the coming decades.” And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that 1.5°C of warming could be reached in as little as 11 years.  

While all energy technologies will be impacted in some way by the increasing severity of natural disasters and sea level rise, the failure of nuclear power plants can result in irreversible health and environmental consequences on top of social and economic damages, including worst of all the release of radiation that can remain lethal for thousands of years. Under government estimates, the Fukushima meltdown resulted in the displacement of 165,000 people, cleanup and compensation costs of up to $200 billion, and a timeline of 30 to 40 years. Experts say, however, that true costs could reach $500 billion and decontamination timelines could be underestimated by decades.

Nuclear in East Asia

Despite initial vocal opposition from the public in many East Asian countries that have slowed down nuclear buildout after Fukushima, the direction of government policies for nuclear development in East Asia remain mostly unchanged, and have simply resulted in rather a more conservative, moderate pace. In fact, this pace has sustained much of nuclear development in East Asia, home to many countries that have found nuclear power as an attractive solution to addressing the dilemma between achieving energy security for an increasing population and decarbonizing to mitigate global climate change.

Of the 56 nuclear power plants currently in construction around the world, 33 of them are in Asia; 16 in China alone. As observed in the graph below, if all nuclear units that are currently under construction reach completion, East Asia is slated to become the region with the largest number of operating nuclear power plants, 93 percent of which will reside along the coast.

What is alarming is that East Asia and the Pacific region is uniquely vulnerable to sea-level rise. A 2015 report by Climate Central found that of the top 10 countries most likely to be affected sea level rise for 4°C warming, seven are in Asia. Similarly, in a study by the World Bank, China and Indonesia will be the most vulnerable to permanent inundation. Given the heightened flooding risks in Asia, strengthening the authority of regulatory structures that oversee the safety of nuclear build out will be increasingly important.

What's the Plan?

Fukushima was a lesson to the global community that even one of the world's most technologically advanced and experienced countries can fail to prevent a nuclear meltdown. To prepare for the realities of rising sea levels that pose unique risks to different nuclear plants, regulators must require climate adaptation plans and heightened safety oversight. Nonetheless, at the international scale, not much work is being done to address these sea-level rise concerns.

The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), in recognizing that the "world is ill-prepared for the risks from a changing climate," conducted a study on the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to climate change, which is not yet available to the public. Since 2014, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has begun to include a section about the impacts of climate change on nuclear energy in its annual Climate and Nuclear Power Report. Yet even as these international organizations detail the many hazards changing climate poses to nuclear reactors, preventative and/or adaptation measures do not seem to be prioritized or encouraged, especially for existing nuclear plants.

“Outside of their Scope” at Home

Similar attitudes are held here in the U.S. Perched at the southern tip of Florida, the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station is seeking to be the first U.S. nuclear plant permitted to run for 80 years. Initially refusing to consider sea-level rise in the environmental review of the license extension, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) released a revised draft this year, only to come to the following conclusion: It’s outside of the scope of the agency.

"If new information about changing environmental conditions (such as rising sea levels that threaten safe operating conditions or challenge compliance with the plant’s technical specifications) becomes available, the NRC will evaluate the new information to determine if any safety-related changes are needed at licensed nuclear power plants," the NRC report said.

The report arrives at this conclusion by utilizing lower-bound sea level rise estimates from the 2018 U.S. Climate Change assessment, rationalizing that the report “assigns very high confidence to the lower bounds of these projections and medium confidence to the upper bounds.” As highlighted by this Bloomberg analysis released this year, nuclear plant operators are not only allowed to perform their own flood risk estimates but are also able to decide what assumptions are made, with review from the NRC.

The uncertainty that comes with sea-level rise projections obviously exists. In securing the safety of such critical infrastructure, however, using the highest sea-level rise estimates is the only way to ensure that all actions that can be taken against a potential threat are taken. On the other hand, relying on the lowest storm surge estimates is akin to receiving a warning about a potential threat, and taking the bare minimum actions to prepare for it.

Changing ambient temperatures are already posing serious risks to nuclear plants across the world. Nuclear regulators cannot wait until sea-level rise coupled with storm surges begin severely impacting operational safety of their plants—they must act now. With the world’s scientists calling attention to the climate crisis ahead of us, action must be taken to ensure nuclear plants are part of the solution, not the problem.

For more information about NRDC’s recommendations on Nuclear Energy, see our blog series on our 2017 Pathways Report.

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