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Far from "solving global warming," n-power too risky in destabilized climate

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Kevin Kamps at Beyond Nuclear

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.

In the U.S., current historic floods on the Missouri River, threatening the Fort Calhoun and Cooper (of the same design as Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 to 4) 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 (208 liter) 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 U.S. did not directly 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. Similarly, Hurricane Andrew at Turkey Point nuclear power plant near Miami in 1992 required the diversion of diesel fuel supplies from area hospitals in order to keep emergency backup generators running for many days, to operate vital safety and cooling systems.

Given their vulnerable locations, on sea coasts, rivers, the Great Lakes, etc., U.S. 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. Dave Kraft of Nuclear Energy Information Service in Chicago has documented several such occurrences in the U.S. and Europe in a fact sheet entitled “ ‘It’s the water, stupid!’ Nuclear power won’t work in Global Warming World.”

In the summer of 1988, nearly 100 reactor-days of operations at Commonwealth Edison reactors in Illinois were lost due to severe drought, exceedingly high temperatures, low river volumes and flow rates.

In the summer of 2003, the Western European heat wave that killed 30,000 people also wreaked havoc with atomic reactor operations. Spain shut down its reactors. France and Germany shut some reactors down, but allowed others to continue operating, exceeding design standards and thermal discharge regulations. At Fessenheim in France, local firefighters were called upon to hose down overheating reactor containments. And at Blayais on the Gironda River estuary in France, thermal discharge limits were violated 50 times over.

In the summer of 2006, the twin reactors at Donald C. Cook nuclear power plant in Michigan, were forced to shut down during a severe heat wave. Internal containment building temperatures exceeded the regulatory limit of 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) for over 8 hours, and the temperature could not be reduced. Remarkably, this occurred despite Cook drawing its cooling water from Lake Michigan, one of the single largest bodies of fresh water on the planet.

From August 5-12, 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority (a federal nuclear utility) lost one-third of its nuclear capacity due to serious drought conditions in the Southeastern U.S. All three reactors at Browns Ferry in Alabama were shut down to prevent overheating the Tennessee River. The Southeast already hosts over two dozen atomic reactors. Construction on four new ones is already underway at Vogtle in Georgia and Summer in South Carolina.

Again in July, 2009, 20 gigawatts-electric of France’s total nuclear generating capacity of 63 GW-e was out of service due to reaching thermal discharge limits for French rivers.

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. They do not require huge amounts of cooling water, as do atomic reactors. Best of all, they are genuinely clean – representing actual solutions to the climate crisis.

Source and contact: Kevin Kamps at Beyond Nuclear, 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 400, Takoma Park, MD 20912, USA.
Tel: 301.270.2209
Fax: 301.270.4000

Beyond Nuclear