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Climate threats & nuclear plantsWhat are coastal nuclear power plants doing to address climate threats?

By John Vidal

Published 10 August 2018

Flooding can be catastrophic to a nuclear power plant because it can knock out its electrical systems, disabling its cooling mechanisms and leading to overheating and possible meltdown and a dangerous release of radioactivity. At least 100 U.S., European and Asian nuclear power stations built just a few meters above sea level could be threatened by serious flooding caused by accelerating sea-level rise and more frequent storm surges. More than 20 flooding incidents have been recorded at U.S. nuclear plants since the early 1980s. A number of scientific papers published in 2018 suggest that climate change will impact coastal nuclear plants earlier and harder than the industry, governments, or regulatory bodies have expected, and that the safety standards set by national nuclear regulators and the IAEA are out of date and take insufficient account of the effects of climate change on nuclear power.

The outer defensive wall of what is expected to be the world’s most expensive nuclear power station is taking shape on the shorelineof the choppy gray waters of the Bristol Channel in western England.

By the time the $25 billion Hinkley Point C nuclear station is finished, possibly in 2028, the concrete seawall will be 12.5 meters (41 feet) high, 900 meters (3,000 feet) long and durable enough, the UK regulator and French engineers say, to withstand the strongest storm surge, the greatest tsunami and the highest sea-level rise.

But will it? Independent nuclear consultant Pete Roche, a former adviser to the UK government and Greenpeace, points out that the tidal range along this stretch of coast is one of the highest in the world, and that erosion is heavy. Indeed, observers reported serious flooding on the sitein 1981 when an earlier nuclear power station had to be shut down for a week. following a spring tide and a storm surge. However well built, says Roche, the new seawall does not adequately take into account sea-level rise due to climate change.

“The wall is strong, but the plans were drawn up in 2012, before the increasing volume of melting of the Greenland ice cap was properly understood and when most experts thought there was no net melting in the Antarctic,” he says. “Now estimates of sea level rise in the next 50 years have gone up from less than 30 centimeters to more than a meter, well within the operating lifespan of Hinkley Point C — let alone in 100 years time when the reactors are finally decommissioned or the even longer period when spent nuclear fuel is likely to be stored on site.”

In fact, research by Ensia suggests that at least 100 U.S., European and Asian nuclear power stations built just a few meters above sea level could be threatened by serious flooding caused by accelerating sea-level rise and more frequent storm surges.