March 31, 2011

Nuclear Power and Extreme Floods

Extreme weather disasters, especially floods, are on the rise. 

Nuclear plants demand large sources of water in order to cool and control the core temperatures of the reactors that power them. To meet this inevitable requirement, nuclear plants are situated in low-lying areas near rivers and lakes, and many others are built on the coasts. This proximity leaves these plants vulnerable to floods and other water-related disasters.

Though reactors in the United States are built to strict safety standards, we know that climate change is making floods, droughts, and hurricanes stronger and more frequent, which means we must ask whether our safety standards, even when followed perfectly, are enough to prevent disaster.

The problem is that our nuclear reactors are all old. This makes them vulnerable to problems, like stronger floods caused by climate change, about which we had considerably less knowledge three to four decades ago when the plants were built.

Large and destructive floods once thought likely to happen only once in 100 years on average are now expected to happen every 20 years: a five-fold increase. In response to this growing awareness of disasters that can result from climate change, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, released a safety guide in 2003 detailing flood-related hazards to nuclear power plants on coastal and river sites.

Should we be reissuing permits to aging reactors that weren't designed to operate in our current environment? 

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