A new dawn is coming for nuclear power. This week, America found out that President Obama’s economic stimulus plan includes a $50 billion loan guarantee for nuclear power plants in the Senate version. Nuclear power is about to be revived from its political and public-opinion grave to enjoy a “green renaissance,” now with 35 new nuclear reactors being planned. This lethally radioactive zombie is about to get an extreme makeover with the cosmetics of combating global warming, achieving environmental stewardship, deepening economic prosperity, and attaining energy independence (touted as a national security issue by President Barack Obama). Then it will get a new name: the new green energy. The irony is that while nuclear proponents cite global warming as the key impetus for expanding nuclear power, it is precisely global climate disruptions and the associated extreme weather events which will significantly multiply and amplify the existing risks and costs of nuclear power to make it more costly, risky, lethal, and unreliable. With global warming, nuclear power threatens to turn ordinary natural disasters (such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts) into potential nuclear disasters.
Unfortunately, it’s not just President Obama and his energy secretary Dr. Steven Chu who want to see nuclear power in the country’s energy mix. Many other countries are seeing a nuclear resurgence as well: Germany’s Angela Merkel and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi wanted more nuclear power in their energy mix as they tackle global warming, and U.K.’s Business Secretary John Hutton said in July 2008 that “Nuclear power is an essential part of our future energy mix” and Prime Minister Gordon Brown wants to be “more ambitious” with nuclear power. Hutton is quoted by the BBC as saying that nuclear power is a “safe and affordable” way of securing the U.K.’s future energy supplies while combating climate change. Today all members of G8 are more pro-nuclear than ever before.
As an insider and consultant to the nuclear industry, retired Yale professor Charles Perrow warns in his book, The Next Catastrophe (2007): “Nuclear power plants concentrate more lethal potential than anything else in our society. These vulnerabilities of nuclear power require a vigorous regulatory effort, especially since there is no meaningful liability penalty for a catastrophic accident.” Unfortunately, what we see in the energy industry–just like what we see today in the financial industry and Wall Street–has been vigorous deregulation (which essentially allows the energy industry to self-regulate) and a woeful lack of governmental oversight and failure of enforcement. Perrow wrote that in 2001 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reduced federal oversight of security and “allowed the power companies to design their own security exercises, despite reviews that found, in 2000, ‘alarms and video camera surveillance cameras that don’t work, guards who can’t operate their weapons, and guns that don’t shoot….’” If the existing nuclear utilities cannot even do a decent job on securing their power plants, how can the public have faith in their ability to upgrade their facilities in the face of extreme climate disruptions or well-trained foreign terrorists?
Climate scientists working for United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have forecasted more catastrophic weather events in the near future: more floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and droughts. Mainstream media worldwide have already reported on the significantly increased unpredictable, extreme weather events with global warming. Hence, global climate change threatens to turn normal natural disasters into nuclear disasters when the two intersect, if a natural disaster happens to strike an existing nuclear power plant, a nuclear waste-storage site, or even nuclear wastes in transit.
Global Warming and Extreme Weather Events Significantly Amplify Existing Risks of Nuclear Power Plants: Floods, Tornadoes, Hurricanes, Wildfires, and Droughts
Nuclear-power facilities will be affected by global climate disruptions and their associated intense storms and flooding, according to U.S. intelligence agencies’ joint assessment, which was released in June 2008. In remarks prepared for a joint congressional hearing, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Thomas Fingar, said, “Two dozen nuclear facilities and numerous refineries along U.S. coastlines are at risk and may be severely impacted by storms.” He also said that other U.S. infrastructure is ill-prepared for climate change.
Nuclear-power advocates tend to underestimate or altogether dismiss the risks of catastrophic weather events associated with global warming. The reality is that climate change is being forecasted by scientists (including those on the IPCC) to bring more frequent and more severe floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts. These extreme weather events are likely to wreak havoc for not just the nuclear power plants, but also for the nuclear waste storage and waste and fuel transportation.
Nuclear Power Plants Vulnerable to Frequent and More Severe Floods, Rising Sea Level, Higher Storm Surges and Waves, and Coastal Erosion
Climate scientists at U.K.’s University of Bristol who published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have forecasted that with global warming, there will be more extreme floods, droughts, forest fires for the next 200 years. Many nuclear power plants are built in flood-prone zones and in coastal areas. With more frequent and severe floods in the new era of global climate change, nuclear power plants will be more vulnerable to both floods and rising sea level.
According to NIRS, in mid-July 1993, the Cooper nuclear power station, situated on a 100-year flood plain, had to shut down its reactors when the fast-rising flood waters of the Missouri River near Brownsville, Nebraska, collapsed the surrounding dikes and levees. Later, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that the below-grade rooms in the reactor and turbine buildings had suffered extensive leakages due to rising flood waters. In fact, the nuclear power plant was not flood-proof: the electrical cables and equipment in the Reactor Core Isolation Cooling pump room had ground-out circuitry due to flood waters, and the floor-drain system had backed up, causing the standing water from the radioactive area to contaminate the clean area. Most importantly, the power-plant employees had no measures to divert water away from critical components.
Most of Britain’s existing nuclear power plants are located on the coastal area (see this map in a BBC news report). According to the IPCC, sea level has been rising at a rate of 1.7 to 1.8 mm/year over the past century, with an increased rate of approximately 3.1 mm/year in the previous decade. IPCC noted that in the past 100 to 150 years, sea-level rise has contributed significantly to coastal erosion, whereby 75 percent of eastern United States shoreline has been affected and 67 percent of eastern coastline of U.K. has retreated landward of the low-water mark. U.K. is proposing to build four new nuclear power plants on its coasts: if the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet melts completely, there would be an expected 5 to 6 meters (16.4 to 19.7 feet) rise in sea level, totally inundating these nuclear power plants! Greenpeace did an excellent analysis of the impacts of climate change on the site selection of U.K.’s proposed nuclear plants.
During the December 2004 Sumatra earthquake and the Indian Ocean tsunami, a fast-breeder nuclear reactor at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu state was flooded by a ferocious tidal wave which surged toward the coast. The operating unit of Madras Atomic Power Station was forced to shut down after its pumping station (its cooling system) was flooded by salt water, according to Economic Times (India); the secretive Atomic Energy Regulatory Board refused to disclose whether there were radiation leaks afterwards and then there were reports of supposed safety. Fortunately, the nuclear reactor itself was not damaged structurally, but the nuclear power plant’s residential complex nearby was overwhelmed by the tidal waves and several technical personnel (including nuclear scientists) died during the flood, clear evidence of poor planning to protect the nuclear power facility and staff from floods and other natural disasters.
In addition to rising sea level with global warming, IPCC scientists predicted there will be increased intensity of storms, enhanced wave heights, and worsening coastal erosion. It is difficult to imagine how governments can cope with the mounting existing problems of nuclear power plants (e.g., accidents in its operations, waste transport and storage) in an era with serious climate disruptions; now they are planning to build new plants in the path of higher sea levels and more ferocious storms—are they asking for trouble? Evidently, the existing nuclear power plants are ill-prepared for the effects of global warming. How can energy planners and policymakers be seriously thinking about constructing more nuclear power plants—especially those built in precarious locations?
Nuclear Plants Susceptible to Violent Tornadoes and Severe Thunderstorms
NASA scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies are forecasting that as Earth’s climate warms, there will be more violent and severe storms and tornadoes. There will also be more “severe thunderstorms” with significant wind shear which will cause damaging winds on the ground. Meteorologists at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say tornado season of 2008 is one of the deadliest in a decade and could have set the record for the most tornadoes. And flooding in the midwestern United States has been at 100-year levels in spring of 2008. Already in 2004, NOAA Storm Prediction Center in Norman Oklahoma recorded 1,717 tornadoes, the highest ever since record-keeping began in 1950, and nearly 300 more than the previous year.
More violent tornadoes and storms can cause significant damages to our existing nuclear power plants. But we have been lucky that no tornado thus far has caused major damage to nuclear power plants in the United States.
On April 7, 2002, the tornado that leveled the city of La Plata, Maryland, narrowly missed the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant (see photographs) located on the shores of Chesapeake Bay in Lusby, Maryland, according to a report by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. This tornado, categorized as a F4 tornado with its 260-miles-per-hour winds, could have produced winds and tornado missiles which could have seriously damaged steel-reinforced concrete structures and support systems for on-site irradiated fuel-storage ponds, off-site power supply, emergency onsite power supplies, cooling pumps, and make-up water supply.
In June 2008, a tornado hit Kansas State University campus (approximately 120 miles west of Kansas City, Missouri), flattening other buildings and causing extensive damage to the building housing the campus’s nuclear reactor. Fortunately there was no damage to the reactor which had been shut down properly earlier in the day.
On June 24, 1998, the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station located on the southwestern shore of Lake Erie in Oak Harbor, Ohio, suffered a “directly hit” by an F2 tornado. Luckily, there were no radioactive leaks, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that the plant’s switchyard was damaged and that access to external power was disabled. Also damaged by the tornado were the turbine building’s roof, the administrative building’s roof, and extensive flood damage to the latter building’s second floor.
According to a 2005 hearing held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, the “robust design and construction” of U.S. nuclear power plants have “enabled them to withstand” severe natural phenomena. In this self-congratulatory statement, the committee entirely missed the fact that in the new era of global climate change and extreme weather, the frequency of “natural phenomena” and their severity will be significantly magnified.
Nuclear Plants Vulnerable to More Frequent and Severe Wildfires
Wildfires have been in the news lately, especially in California, where the fire season has been significantly lengthened and Governor Schwarzenegger even blamed global warming for elongating the fire season. Scientists forecast that with global warming, there will be more intense droughts, less precipitation, hotter weather, earlier snowmelt, and more tree diseases (such as the pine beetle currently ravaging Colorado’s pine trees), all of which make the wildfires more intense and less manageable.
In October 2007, wildfires destroyed nearly 1,000 homes (and property damage surpassing $1 billion) in San Diego County, California. The wildfires raged at Camp Pendleton on October 24, 2007, within seven miles of the San Onofre nuclear power plant operated by the Southern California Edison in Oceanside, a plant with two reactors generating 2,250 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1.4 million homes. Luckily, the nuclear reactors were not online at the time. But even when nuclear reactors are not online, they still require hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to cool the reactors and need electricity to run the cooling water pumps; they might compete for this water with firefighters who also need this water to put out the surrounding wildfires.
In January 2007, a wildfire burned within two miles of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California; the 332-acre blaze was attributed to rats chewing on electrical wire inside a mobile home. Luckily, this wildfire did not reach the nuclear power plant before being extinguished.
So far, we have been lucky. In the face of the decade-long drought in the U.S. Southwest and several recent catastrophic wildfires, nuclear power plants have escaped ravage by these fires.
Droughts, Chronic Water Shortages, and the Coming Water Scarcity Are Achilles Heel of Nuclear Power Plants: No Water, No Nuclear Power. Period.
Nuclear power plants are a voracious consumer of water. Nuclear power requires even more water than gas-fired generators, at 3,100 liters per megawatt hour of electricity, just to keep the nuclear reactors from overheating. (Coal and natural gas use 2,800 liters and 2,300 liters per megawatt hours, respectively.) According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2006 “Report to the Congress on the Interdependency of Energy and Water,” the most water-intensive form of electricity generation is nuclear power, especially the plants with the open-loop cooling (once-through) design.
IPCC scientists and other climate scientists worldwide have published grim reports of freshwater availability throughout the world. With coming water shortages, it is difficult to see how the United States and the rest of the world can operate more nuclear power plants. The U.S. banking giant JP Morgan Chase has issued an interesting report, “Watching Water: A guide to evaluating corporate risks in a thirsty world,” which contains a short section on energy requirements of water. Even a multinational bank has recognized that nuclear and thermoelectric power generation (in addition to mining, semiconductor manufacturing, and food and beverage industries) “are particularly exposed to water-related risks….”
In the well-publicized drought and the heat waves when temperatures soaring above 100° F in summer 2003 led to thousands of deaths across Europe, Electricité de France (EDF) had to shut down a quarter of its 58 nuclear power plants in France while the average electricity price skyrocketed by some 1,300%. EDF lost €300 million because it had to import electricity. Italy imported 2,650 megawatts from France each day, but since France was experiencing electricity shortfall itself, Italy was forced to cut power in many cities, trapping people in elevators and turning off traffic lights.
Three years later, during Europe’s 2006 heat wave, French, German, and Spanish utilities were forced to shut down several nuclear power plants and reduce power at others for as much as a week due to low water levels.
In the summer of 2007, dubbed as having “the hottest weather in more than 50 years,” the Tennessee Valley Authority had to shut down one of three reactors at the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant in northern Alabama due to heat waves and drought and to avoid heating the Tennessee River to dangerous levels. The irony to the story is that while nuclear power has been called reliable, during this peak of energy demand, it could not deliver due to drought and water shortages.
An Associated Press report found that 24 of the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States are located in areas experiencing severe drought: In November 2007, the Harris reactor near Raleigh, North Carolina, operated by Progress Energy Inc., had to be shut down because water level in Harris Lake was too low: at only three and a half feet above the water limit set in the plant’s license. Duke Energy Corp.’s McGuire nuclear power plant, which draws water from Lake Norman near Charlotte, North Carolina, was so low in 2007 that it was barely a foot above the minimum required for a backup system.
An excellent article on energy-water interdependence published by Scientific American also begins with a conflict between Florida and Alabama over water to save Florida’s endangered species and to operate nuclear power plant:
In June the state of Florida made an unusual announcement: it would sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the corps’s plan to reduce water flow from reservoirs in Georgia into the Apalachicola River, which runs through Florida from the Georgia-Alabama border. Florida was concerned that the restricted flow would threaten certain endangered species. Alabama also objected, worried about another species: nuclear power plants, which use enormous quantities of water, usually drawn from rivers and lakes, to cool their big reactors. The reduced flow raised the specter that the Farley Nuclear Plant near Dothan, Ala., would need to shut down.
With global warming, the world will see more chronic droughts and water scarcity, according to IPCC and many other climate scientists. With nuclear power’s voracious demand for water, how can building more nuclear power plants possibly be a solution to climate change? Is nuclear power an energy solution in time of more severe droughts?
Water-Scarce and Disaster-Prone China and India Plan to Build More New Nuclear Power Plants
According to the nuclear industry association, World Nuclear Association, there are some 439 nuclear power reactors operating in 31 countries, with a combined capacity of more than 370 GWe; in 2007 these provided 2608 billion kWh, about 16% of the world’s electricity. The two countries which are furiously building new nuclear power plants are China and India, with ambitious plans to build many more:
- China currently has 11 operating reactors but it has ambitious plans to at least quadruple its nuclear-power capacity by 2020, according to World Nuclear Association. (Taiwan is building two new advanced boiling water reactors, or BWRs.)
- India is now building six reactors (expected to be completed by 2010), according to World Nuclear Association. Ten more nuclear power plants are being planned. (Pakistan is now building two new nuclear reactors, with China’s help.)
It is a grave mistake for national energy planners in China and India to be building so many new nuclear power plants. In recent years, both countries have been severely affected by extreme weather associated with global climate change (catastrophic droughts, floods, tornadoes, cyclones, and typhoons), domestic and foreign terrorist attacks, and earthquakes. Any one of these natural disasters or deliberate attacks striking either nuclear reactors or nuclear-waste transport and storage sites could spell potential cataclysmic nuclear disaster for China and India, both being large and densely populated countries. Both countries also have poor records of cleaning up their own sites of past industrial chemical accidents: for example, India has left untouched the Bhopal site after the Union Carbide/Dow pesticide plant’s toxic gas leak (releasing 42 tons of methyl isocyanate) on December 3, 1984, which initially killed an estimated 8,000 people within the first two weeks and claiming 8,000 more lives afterwards. With this kind of environmental record, how can people trust their government with building more nuclear power plants?
Let’s start with a very brief glimpse of China’s water problems associated with climate changed-induced extreme weather events in the past two years (remember, this is a much abbreviated list of extreme weather events):
- Begun on May 26, 2008, the 20-day torrential rains, floods, and landslides in the 15 provinces of eastern and southern China left more than 200 dead or missing and forced 1.3 million people to evacuate. The damages were estimated at $2.2 billion.
- In the first three months of 2008, China suffered a devastating drought in Liaoning Province, which left nearly 700,000 people without drinking water; approximately 66 reservoirs dried up, and 1,700 new wells were drilled in a desperate search for drinking water, according to Reuters and Xinhua. Also affected were 19.4 million hectares (48 million acres) of land and 3.3 million hectares (8.15 million acres) of cropland. Water is a serious problem in China: annually about 30 million rural and 20 million urban Chinese face drinking-water shortages.
- In mid-2008, Shanxi Province was also hit with drought: 560,000 people had no drinking water, according to Xinhua news agency.
- In mid-2007 in Liaoning, the worst drought in 30 years left more than 8 million people without water; nearly 90 reservoirs dried up and 25,000 wells could no longer supply enough water, and 1.4 million hectares of crops were damaged, according to Xinhua news agency. In Inner Mongolia Province, 870,000 people and 1.5 million livestock had no water (and many livestock died of hunger and thirst).
- In August 2008, Sichuan Province suffered the worst drought in 50 years, with no rain for more than 70 days: more than 10 million people had no drinking water, and economic losses totaled at least 9.9 billion yuan. Two-thirds of lakes and rivers dried up, and more than 200 reservoirs were extremely low; the Chongqing section of the Yangtze River was lowest in 100 years.
As for India, it has its long list of natural disasters in recent years, of which we briefly list only three, as follows:
- In August 2008, more than 200 people died (with thousands more missing) and more than half a million people were stranded by the floods in northern India (especially Bihar); an estimated 2.1 million people in the 394 square-mile area were affected by the flood, according to the Bihar government as reported in the New York Times.
- In 2000, during India’s worst drought in 100 years, 50 million people in four states were severely affected. In 2002, it faced another severe drought (the fifth worst drought in its history), which affected 300 million people across 1.8 million square kilometers and almost one-third of its cropland (62 million hectares, which reduced its crop yield by 12 percent), according to the World Bank (report in PDF).
- In 1999, a Supercyclone with wind gusts up to 190 miles per hour and waves up to 15 feet crashed into the eastern state of Orissa; it left more than 9,500 people dead, 2.5 million homeless, and property damage estimated at $3.5 billion (in 1999 U.S. dollar).
If any one of these extreme weather events had struck a nuclear power plant, nuclear waste in transit, or a nuclear-waste storage facility, then the consequences would have been unimaginable. In addition to climate-related natural disasters, China and India also have their share of separatists, extremist factions, domestic disgruntled groups, and foreign terrorists. They have mounted more violent attacks in recent years. Building more nuclear power plants will concentrate more lethal vulnerabilities into fewer and smaller areas, making it easier for each attack to be transformed into a calamitous nuclear disaster.
Avoiding the Next Catastrophe: Don’t Turn Natural Disasters into Nuclear Disasters
Water will become scarcer and more expensive as global climate disruptions exacerbate existing water problems of groundwater and surface water pollution and intensify chronic water shortages worldwide. During the Christmas week of 2008, we witnessed the largest toxic coal ash spill in the U.S. history: more than 1 billion gallons of wet toxic coal ash were spilled across 300 acres and into tributaries of the Tennessee River; tests of river water revealed heavy metals (e.g., arsenic, lead, chromium, and mercury) at 2 to 300 times higher than drinking-water standards. The offender, the Tennessee Valley Authority, disclosed to the New York Times that in just one year, a coal-fired power plant’s byproducts include 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium, and 140,000 pounds of manganese. It has been established by decades of medical research that these heavy metals can cause cancer, liver damage, and neurological complications, among other health problems. It is time for our society to engage in discussions of which is more valuable to us: water or electricity. Do we value clean drinking water more, or do we value low-cost electricity more? Do we value aquatic endangered species and pristine watersheds more, or do we value low-cost electricity more?
Nuclear power plants in the United States have two sources of “cataclysmic danger,” according to Perrow. The first one is that the stored nuclear waste products, planned for eventual transport and storage for Yucca Flats in Nevada, “which threatened to contaminate vital water supplies.” The second one is simply terrifying: “More fearsome in immediate terms is the release of radiation from one of our 104 operating plants because of natural disasters, industrial accidents, or terrorist attacks.”
Facing these two calamitous dangers, Perrow also attributes two sources of failures: deregulation in the energy sector in the age of privatization and the downsizing of government; the new one is the consolidation of energy industry, further “magnifying the vulnerability of the bottom line.” These two issues simply make nuclear power extremely vulnerable.
The price of electricity generated by nuclear power appears artificially low on paper because the actual costs are underestimated, mispriced, or shifted to society (or individual victims), and so the private utilities and corporate owners of nuclear power plants do not have to pay for the actual cost of producing nuclear energy. If we figure in the true costs of nuclear power (accounting for all the risks, vulnerabilities, and uncertainties), it has the highest of all forms of power; no other types of power has such a staggering scale of risks and frightening vulnerabilities associated with it. (According to NIRS, annual costs per 1,000 kilograms of avoided CO2 emissions are $68.9 for wind power and $132.5 for nuclear power.) The true cost of nuclear power is the one that the society will keep on paying for decades, long after the decommissioning of the nuclear power plants.
Now, let’s multiply the existing vulnerabilities of nuclear power with that of climate disruptions and extreme weather. And we haven’t even begun yet to discuss the nuclear power plants’ risks as highly attractive targets to both domestic and foreign terrorists! The sensible solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not with more nuclear power, but with small, deconcentrated (as opposed to corporate monopolies), and decentralized power systems that can adapt to local conditions.