Atomic Power in a Destabilized Climate

The nuclear power industry has spent a lot of money on public relations and national advertizing campaigns aimed at convincing the public and decision makers that atomic energy is a solution to the worsening climate crisis. But extreme weather, likely made more frequent and intense by the growing concentration of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, means that nuclear power is too risky to operate amidst the climate chaos. Current historic floods on the Missouri River, threatening the Fort Calhoun and Cooper (of the same design as Fukushima) atomic reactors in Nebraska, have underscored the point. So has a historic wildfire that recently came dangerously close to tens of thousands of 55 gallon barrels of plutonium-contaminated wastes at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico.

Fortunately, a record number of tornadoes, some of record size, this spring across the Midwest, South, and Southeast, did not strike atomic reactors, although some were forced to shut down as a safety precaution when primary electric grids failed. Previous direct hits by tornadoes at atomic reactors, such as Davis-Besse, Ohio, in June 1998, came close to causing a catastrophic radioactivity release, as did Hurricane Andrew at Turkey Point nuclear power plant near Miami in 1992.

Given their vulnerable locations, on sea coasts, rivers, the Great Lakes, etc., atomic reactors grow more risky with the worsening climate crisis. In fact, the 104 operating reactors at 65 sites in 30 states across the U.S. are almost all vulnerable to extreme weather events.

24 operating reactors at 14 sites are located on our sea coasts, vulnerable to hurricanes and storm surges, and eventually, sea level rise. Not included in this count is River Bend nuclear power plant, on the Mississippi River in Louisiana but far from the ocean, which was forced to shut down during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 for safety’s sake. Thus, even “inland” reactors are at risk from powerful enough hurricanes. 64 operating reactors at 39 sites are located along rivers, potentially vulnerable to floods. Certain rivers, of course, are more likely to flood than others. A total of 88 reactors at 53 sites are vulnerable to inundation.

Such an inundation, although caused by an earthquake-spawned tsunami, led to the ongoing triple reactor meltdown and high-level radioactive waste pool releases at Fukushima Daiichi. Many U.S. reactors are also at risk of earthquakes, and some, as on the California coast at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon, to tsunamis.

13 operating reactors at 9 sites are located on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes. An additional 20 reactors are located on the Canada side of the Great Lakes in Ontario. Among other things, these reactors are vulnerable to tornadoes. A tornado damaged the Fermi 2 nuclear power plant in Monroe, Michigan in June, 2010, knocking out the primary electric grid. Fortunately, this happened after it had been discovered, just 4 years earlier, that Fermi 2’s emergency back-up diesel generators had been inoperable for two decades, from 1986 to 2006. Fermi 2 is the largest General Electric Boiling Water Reactor of the Mark 1 design in the world ? a replica of Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 to 4, only significantly bigger, and with more high-level radioactive waste in its storage pool than all four failed Japanese units put together. These Great Lakes reactors are located immediately adjacent to the drinking water supply for 40 million people downstream in the U.S., Canada, and numerous Native American/First Nations, comprising a remarkable 20% of the world’s surface fresh water.

In addition to catastrophic risks from extreme weather, the warming, or absence of enough, cooling water could force atomic reactors to power down, or shut down entirely. In the Southeast, host to dozens of operating reactors, rivers and reservoirs have already grown so warm in recent years that, on some summer days, plants have been forced to cease operating, as at the three reactor Browns Ferry complex in Alabama.

Not only are energy efficiency and renewables such as solar power and wind power ever more cost effective than nuclear power, they are also safer and more reliable in a global warming world. Best of all, they are genuinely clean ? representing actual solutions to the climate crisis.

Kevin Kamps is Radioactive Waste Watchdog at Beyond Nuclear.


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