Lately, nuclear power has proven itself vulnerable not to terrorist attacks, but to nature itself. Disasters such as the well-known from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan raise questions about how safe nuclear power really is and how current and future plants will be able to cope with climate change.
Natalie Kopytko from New Scientist reveals an interesting point of view by linking the placement of nuclear power plants near seas and oceans, for the obvious need of having high cooling capacity, to the safety these plants should offer, given the changes in sea levels due to global warming, and the inherent storms and tsunamis that these areas are vulnerable to.
She quotes four main dangers that nuclear power plants close to seas are exposed to: hurricanes, floods, heat waves and droughts.
1. Hurricanes pose the greatest threat, and although they’re predictable enough, plant regulators sometimes don’t follow basic safety procedures. A real example is the case of hurricane Francis hitting the St. Lucie nuclear plant in Florida in 2004.
2. Floods, such as the one from 1999 that affected the Blayais nuclear power plant on the Gironde estuary in France, caused damage to two of the reactors.
3. Heat waves can affect the temperature of the water that the reactors get cooled with. When the water temperature rises, the electricity production efficiency drops. An example also comes from France, when in 2003 the government had to allow for higher water temperatures to be used, although hey had been exceeding the environmental regulations in force at the time. Since then, every summer uses that exception, which causes very hot water to be released into the sea, damaging the ecosystem.
4. Droughts, which are predicted to be longer and longer, usually reduce the water flow and can endanger a nuclear power plant, the cases where they are located near small bodies of water, such as lakes.
As a final conclusion, given the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency recommends building the nuclear power plants so that they have a 100 years lifespan, it’s not known how existing and future plants will resist to the various manifestations of global warming.
Many of the world’s countries, such as France and Japan depend heavily on nuclear power and will probably never give up fighting for this energy resource, or at least not that easily. The only solution would be changing the cooling technology so that it requires far less water for cooling and designing much safer plants, overall.