What Are Coastal Nuclear Power Plants Doing to Address Climate Threats?

The outer defensive wall of what is expected to be the world’s most expensive nuclear power station is taking shape on the shoreline of the choppy gray waters of the Bristol Channel in western England.

By the time the US$25 billion Hinkley Point C nuclear station is finished, possibly in 2028, the concrete seawall will be 12.5 meters (41 feet) high, 900 meters (3,000 feet) long and durable enough, the UK regulator and French engineers say, to withstand the strongest storm surge, the greatest tsunami and the highest sea-level rise.

But will it? Independent nuclear consultant Pete Roche, a former adviser to the UK government and Greenpeace, points out that the tidal range along this stretch of coast is one of the highest in the world, and that erosion is heavy. Indeed, observers reported serious flooding on the site in 1981 when an earlier nuclear power station had to be shut down for a week following a spring tide and a storm surge. However well built, says Roche, the new seawall does not adequately take into account sea-level rise due to climate change.

“The wall is strong, but the plans were drawn up in 2012, before the increasing volume of melting of the Greenland ice cap was properly understood and when most experts thought there was no net melting in the Antarctic,” he says. “Now estimates of sea level rise in the next 50 years have gone up from less than 30 centimeters to more than a meter, well within the operating lifespan of Hinkley Point C — let alone in 100 years time when the reactors are finally decommissioned or the even longer period when spent nuclear fuel is likely to be stored on site.”

In fact, research by Ensia suggests that at least 100 US, European and Asian nuclear power stations built just a few meters above sea level could be threatened by serious flooding caused by accelerating sea-level rise and more frequent storm surges.

Some efforts are underway to…

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