Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The climate change threat to nuclear power

Natalie Kopytko in New Scientist: The accident at the Fukushima power plant in Japan has led to much discussion about the future of nuclear power. I believe one important lesson of the accident has been overlooked. Nuclear power is often touted as a solution to climate change, but Fukushima serves as a warning that far from solving the climate problem, nuclear power may be highly vulnerable to it.

Of course, the emergency in Japan was caused by an earthquake and tsunami. But the effects of climate change could cause very similar problems.

Two facts that everyone should now know about nuclear power are that it needs access to large volumes of water to cool the reactor and a supply of energy to move the water. For this reason nuclear power plants are typically sited near large bodies of water, often seas or estuaries. It is this attachment to water that makes nuclear power vulnerable to climate change (Energy Policy, vol 39, p 318).

First of all, coastal areas are highly dynamic: storms batter, sea levels rise, and land shifts. This already poses problems for the safety of nuclear plants, and is only going to get worse. Secondly, nuclear power can be disrupted by water scarcity and rising water temperatures.

Nuclear regulators are already well aware of several safety issues, including flooding, loss of power, loss of communications, blockage of evacuation routes and equipment malfunction. Hurricanes pose the greatest threat.

…Another cause for concern is floods. All nuclear power plants are designed to withstand a certain level of flooding based on historical data, but these figures do not take climate change into account. Floods due to sea-level rise, storm surges and heavy rain will increase in frequency….

A 1999 picture of the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant, shot by kawamoto takuo, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

1 comment:

Landscaping Designs Made Easy said...

I don't understand the point. Arguing which environmental catastrophe is worse doesn't get us anywhere. BP and Fukushima are both devastating. The fish don't care whether they die from oil or radiation. The energy sector has co-opted our news media and politics and they are killing our environment with reckless projects and bad management. The next BP oil sipll, the next Fukushima are coming unless we get srious about green energy like wind and solar power.