Nuclear power plant flood risk: Sandy was just a warm-up

Original Reporting | By Heather Rogers |

Attempting to evacuate in the midst of a hurricane, Reilly said, is “trying to get out when the window for evacuation is over.”

Dr. Andrew S. Kanter, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and an associate professor at Columbia University, said that it is not realistic in today’s circumstances to assume that all key emergency facilities would be fully operational during a severe storm. During Sandy, for example, three major New York City hospitals lost power and were forced to evacuate.

The NRC has yet to conduct a study focused on the risks to coastal plants of rising sea levels and storm surges caused by global warming. “We’re not at that point yet.”  — Neil Sheehan, NRC spokesperson

“If there was a significant [nuclear] accident that took out all the hospitals in New York City, there’s not enough hospital beds in the entire region to relocate all of those people,” Kanter explained. “We’re running at maximum efficiency right now [in hospitals] and there isn’t a lot of excess reserve.”

The likelihood and level of such calamities depends on the intensity and scope of the storm. As Reilly pointed out, for all the havoc it wreaked, Sandy was a mere Category 1 hurricane. “This wasn’t the level of a Hurricane Katrina; it wasn’t that devastating of a natural disaster — this was a very basic hurricane,” Reilly said. “But the fact that it affected so many [nuclear power] facilities in that they seemed to have to shut reactors down, or de-power reactors, or the pumps failed, or they had to go onto generator power, or whatever the specific incident was, I think points to vulnerabilities,” he said. “That says to me that these facilities need to be hardened more because if they were faced with a Category 2 or a Category 3, it makes me concerned about whether or not they’d be able to safely shut down.”


Are nuclear power plants becoming more exposed to flood risks?

While climate scientists, including Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, the director of the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at Princeton University, currently project that the frequency of tropical cyclones such as hurricanes will stay the same, or even decrease, the severity of these storms is expected to rise. This is the result of warming ocean surface temperature, due to increasing atmospheric temperatures. “There will be a shift from less intense, say, Category 1 and 2 hurricanes, toward more intense hurricanes,” Oppenheimer said.

Amplifying the effect of these more powerful storms will be a rise in sea level. “So there are two things expected to happen simultaneously which will increase surge levels in the future,” explained Oppenheimer. Consequently, he said, “Planning for any [nuclear] installations along the coast needs to keep that in mind.”


Does the NRC currently factor increased flooding risk due to climate change into its safety requirements?

Sheehan, the NRC spokesperson, said that the agency has not factored in the effects of climate change on nuclear plants’ flood safety.

According to Sheehan, the new NRC chief, Allison M. MacFarlane, recently told the agency’s staff that she wants to start taking into account climate change in nuclear plant safety. However, she has issued no official call, schedule, or process to include it in the NRC’s current or future regulations.

What’s more, the NRC has yet to even conduct a study focused on the risks to coastal plants of rising sea levels and storm surges caused by global warming. “We’re not at that point yet,” Sheehan said.

Nevertheless, Sheehan claimed that Oyster Creek and all the other nuclear power plants in Sandy’s path would have been fine if they had been directly hit by the storm.


Does the NRC have plans to close any nuclear power plants because of increased vulnerability to flooding?



What is the NRC doing to require nuclear power plants to better withstand flooding and its consequences?

In March 2012, the NRC issued updated flood-safety “recommendations” in response to the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. The recommendations require the country’s 65 nuclear power plants — which operate 104 reactors — to conduct internal assessments to ensure their facilities meet updated flood- and seismic-risk guidelines. If these reevaluations reveal inadequacies, then the facilities are required to develop remedial plans for NRC approval, and, when approved, implement those plans. But, as of now, the post-Fukushima recommendations issued by the NRC do not require the country’s nuclear power plants to assess their facilities in light of projected future consequences of global warming, such as a rise in sea level and more extreme storms.

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