Perspective: Will Rising Seas Be Nuclear's Achilles' Heel?

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Nuclear energy's unique selling proposition (USP) of lower-carbon electricity production sits in the context of a much larger picture -- that coastal nuclear will be one of the first, and most significant, casualties to ramping climate impact, argues Paul Dorfman, of the UCL Energy Institute, University College London. Because of this, Dorfman, who authored a report on the issue released this week, posits that nuclear, far from helping with our shared climate problem, may well add to it. As the world heats, sea levels are rising at an accelerated rate -- now estimated at 3 to 4 millimeters a year -- as ice stored at the poles and in glaciers melts. A recent NASA study based on 25 years of satellite data found that the Arctic is melting so rapidly that it’s now 20% thinner than a decade ago, weakening a major source of the planet’s cooling. The polar ice caps are melting six times faster than they were in the 1990s, with the high melt rate corresponding to the worst-case scenario for global heating set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This means that the planet will see a very significant rise in sea level, resulting in ramping annual coastal and inland flooding. The melting Arctic ice cap is currently the biggest single contributor to sea-level rise, and already imperils coasts and coastal populations. In other words, a significant part of the Greenland Ice Sheet -- which lost a record amount of ice in 2019 -- is on the brink of a tipping point, after which accelerated melting would become inevitable. And the Antarctic (where more than half of Earth’s freshwater resources are held, representing by far the largest potential source for global sea-level rise under future warming conditions) is also threatened -- with the likelihood that its long-term sea-level contribution will dramatically exceed that of other sources. Put simply, current fundamental scientific knowledge of climate sensitivity and polar ice melt concludes that sea-level rise is significantly faster than previously believed and likely to exceed up to 2.5 meters well within the 21st century. Unfortunately for coastal infrastructure, the effect of rising mean sea levels will be felt most profoundly during extreme storm conditions as strong winds and low atmospheric pressure bring about a temporary and localized increase in sea level known as a "storm surge." Recent published peer-reviewed scientific data point to much quicker and greater sea-level rise, faster, harder, more destructive storms, storm surges, and inland flooding. Yet the overwhelming majority of installed nuclear capacity began operation well before global heating was considered in design or construction. Given ramping predictions for sea-level rise and climatic disturbance, nuclear will prove an important risk. This is because 41% of all nuclear power plants worldwide operate on the sea coast, making them vulnerable to increasing sea-level rise, storm intensity and storm surge-induced flooding. Inland nuclear installations may fare no better, as they face increasingly severe wildfire, with episodic flooding alternating with low river flow and raised water temperatures -- the latter significantly impacting reactor cooling capacity and, hence, viability. Since climate change will impact nuclear plant earlier and harder than industry, government or regulatory bodies may expect, necessary mitigation efforts imply significantly increased expense for nuclear construction, operation and decommissioning. Spent fuel management facilities will also be increasingly vulnerable to unanticipated climate-driven environmental events, involving significant risk to onsite high-, medium- and low-level nuclear waste stockpiles. A key associated problem is that 516 million people worldwide live within a 50 mile (80 kilometer) radius of at least one operating nuclear power plant, and 20 million live within a 10 mile (16 km) radius -- and so face health and safety risks from climate change-induced radiation contamination release events. Since at least 100 nuclear power stations are just a few meters above sea level and will be increasingly threatened by serious flooding caused by accelerating sea-level rise and more frequent storm surge, there’s no question that nuclear stations are, quite literally, on the front line of climate change risk -- and not in a good way. For example, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission concludes that the vast majority of US nuclear sites have already experienced flooding hazard beyond their design basis, and a recent US Army War College report states that nuclear power facilities are at "high risk" of temporary or permanent closure due to climate threats -- with 60% of US nuclear capacity vulnerable to major risks including sea-level rise, severe storms, and cooling water shortages. Recent climate impact data suggests the need for a substantive reassessment of nuclear’s role in net zero. In other words, nuclear’s lower-carbon electricity USP sits alongside the probability that coastal nuclear plants will be one of the first, and most significant, casualties of rising seas; with inland nuclear plants increasingly subject to intermittent flooding, loss of reactor cooling, and wildfire risk. This unfortunate reality means that evolutionary modeled predictions of climate change impact on nuclear infrastructure must be accounted for, including the potential for rapidly changing extreme events, abrupt interactions and problematic feedbacks. Further comprehensive nuclear industry and regulatory risk assessments based on "all case" scenarios must be published and regularly updated as fundamental scientific climate impact evidence evolves. Such an approach must include costings for any necessary mitigation measures and a range of contingency plans for the swift onset of climate-driven severe weather.

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