Nuclear power inhabits a strange middle-ground – a no man’s land – in our energy landscape. A nuclear power plant is a zero-carbon operation. But mining and processing uranium and transporting both the fuel and the spent waste all incur some greenhouse gas emissions. Still, nuclear power is generally considered a low-emissions (a.k.a. clean, or green) power source.
It’s the safety issue that’s the real sticking point. According to statistics compiled by the World Health Organization, coal-fired power plants cause hundreds of times more deaths per terraWatt hour then do nuclear power plants. But the human psyche is naturally geared to focus more on cataclysmic events than the creeping toll of invisible pollution from distant sources. So disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima dominate many people’s thoughts about nuclear power.
In an ironic twist on the nuclear safety discussion, recent events have highlighted the possibility that climate change – caused largely by greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fueled power plants – could actually make such nuclear catastrophes more common.
- Sea level rise: The Fukushima nuclear disaster was brought on by a massive earthquake and the tsunami it spawned – neither at all climate-related. But, as the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, it spurred discussions about the vulnerabilities of coastal power plants. Of particular concern are storm surges produced by the synergistic forces of sea level rise and increasingly severe coastal storms – both driven by rising ocean temperatures. As ClimateCentral’s Alyson Kenward reported at the time, 9 of the 104 licensed nuclear power plants in the United States are located within two miles of the ocean, and all of those were built at least thirty years ago. Since then, sea level has risen several inches. More importantly, we now have a much better understanding of how much sea level will rise in coming decades and how much more intense hurricanes could become. That means that even plants designed with the best information available at the time may not be built to withstand future storm surges.
- Flooding and extreme weather: A power plant doesn’t have to be next to the ocean to be vulnerable to flooding, as two facilities in Nebraska have found out. The National Weather Service reports that the Missouri River basin received ‘nearly a year’s worth of rainfall’ in the last two weeks of May, plus more than twice the usual snow melt – both events that are likely to become more common in the warmer, wetter world we’re creating. The unsurprising result: the Missouri River has overflowed its banks. Andy Freedman reported last week that two nuclear power stations had been affected by the flooding. The situation has been particularly tenuous at Fort Calhoun, which was cited by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission just last year for inadequate flood protections. Authorities have maintained that the situation at Fort Calhoun is under control, but – as with many extreme weather events of the past eighteen months – it is a stark reminder of what could happen if we don’t begin to seriously address the climate vulnerabilities of our infrastructure.
- Jellyfish: This is where it gets really bizarre. Late last week, massive jellyfish blooms forced shutdowns at two nuclear power plants – one in the U.K. and one in Israel. The gelatinous animals clogged intake filters for the cooling water systems. Overfishing and (you guessed it) climate change are thought to be the main culprits behind increasingly frequent and massive jellyfish blooms around the globe.
The future of nuclear power is unclear at this point. Germany has decided to shutter its nuclear program no later than 2022. And a survey conducted by the Civil Society Institute in March found that Fukushima dramatically reduced support for nuclear energy development among Americans.
But, as Michael Coren reports for Fast Company, others are thinking (way outside the box, I might add) about ways to reinvigorate the nuclear power sector:
The image of nuclear power plants–with big, bulbous towers spewing steam–may be a thing of the past. Miniature nuclear reactors are being developed that could roll off assembly lines, onto the back of trucks and power cities of 25,000 people or more during the next few years. The small modular nuclear reactors (sometimes called nuclear batteries for their portable, self-contained design) are being deployed in demonstration projects from South Carolina’s Savannah River Site to Oregon State University. The future of nuclear may not be in huge plants, but in small units that drive to where they’re needed.
Or out of harm’s way, in a pinch.
Not everybody is happy about the idea of mini-nukes driving around the U.S., but Energy Secretary Steven Chu has called the small reactors “the new nuclear option.“