After Fukushima Nuclear Crisis, U.S. Flying Blind

By Andrew Freedman

A little more than a year ago, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake followed by a more than 100-foot-tall tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, about 160 miles northeast of Tokyo. The tidal waves knocked out the plant’s backup generators, which were situated on low ground. Without the generators, workers could not keep the reactors cool. The resulting partial meltdown and release of radioactivity into the air and water dislocated tens of thousands of people who lived near the plant. Most of these people will likely never be able to move back to their original homes.

The Fukushima crisis re-awakened the world to the threats that extreme events pose to complex manmade systems. Fukushima was a disaster that could have been avoided, if the operators of the plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), had heeded scientific warnings that came out after the plant was built, indicating that the installation was located in an area that had seen far more powerful earthquakes and larger tsunamis than the facility was initially designed to withstand.

TEPCO was still studying its options for improving the plant’s safety when the quake hit. If they had taken this evidence into account sooner and built taller sea walls, or moved the backup generators to higher ground, the disaster might have been prevented.

A storm surge is an abnormal wave of water created during a storm, such as a hurricane, which rises above regular sea level. For more information check out NOAA's Storm Surge Overview website. Credit: NOAA.

There are reasons to fear that a similar scenario is playing out in the U.S., but here the most serious threat comes from sea level rise and the increasing dangers that storm-driven waves will overcome the flood defenses of coastal nuclear plants, and coastal energy facilities in general.

The challenge that global warming-related sea level rise poses to coastal energy facilities took center stage at a recent Senate Energy Committee hearing, where lawmakers heard stark warnings about how sea level rise will dramatically increase coastal flooding risks in many places during the next few decades.

Climate Central released a new report on April 19 indicating that in the Lower 48 states, nearly 300 coastal energy facilities, including oil refineries, natural gas infrastructure and nuclear power plants, are located less than four feet above sea level (4.9 million Americans also live below the 4-foot mark). By 2030, storm-driven floods reaching four feet above the high tide line will occur twice as often as they do today, according to the report, which is based on recent peer reviewed research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The new research clearly shows that sea level rise data should be incorporated into risk assessments for sensitive energy facilities built along the coast — particularly nuclear power plants.

One would think that a government entity, be it the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which oversees the nuclear industry, or the Department of Energy, would have at least begun to study this sea level rise threat by now.

In 1992 Hurricane Andrew blew directly over Florida's Turkey Point nuclear plant, cutting off access to external power. The diesel generators supplied back-up power for five days and maintained reactor safety. Credit: NOAA.

However, as senators learned, progress on this front has been slow or even nonexistent. For example, the NRC does not take the latest sea level rise studies, which are more dire than projections from five or ten years ago, into account when determining safety standards for coastal nuclear plants. Most nuclear power plants in use today were licensed three decades ago, and were designed in accordance with the best science that was available back then — before global warming became a widely recognized threat.

Leonard Berry, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, told Senators that the NRC may be underestimating the risk that sea level rise poses to many coastal nuclear facilities, which means the worst-case scenarios plant operators have prepared for are overly optimistic.

The fact that there has not yet been a comprehensive review of how sea level rise may affect the safety of coastal nuclear plants is particularly difficult to understand in light of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster last year, Berry said.

In some ways this means we’re worse off than Japan was just prior to Fukushima. At least in that case TEPCO was aware of the risk, but chose not to take action right away. In the U.S., a policy of ignorance prevails.

As the Guardian newspaper reported on April 30, in the wake of Fukushima, the NRC did undertake a safety review of America’s 100-plus nuclear reactors, issuing a report last July that contained new safety recommendations.

In their report, the NRC called for additional safety measures to protect against flooding and earthquake hazards at nuclear power plants, and for operators of nuclear plants to update their analysis of flood risks every decade, but the threat that sea level rise poses was not included in the report. (In fact, a search of the report for the term “sea level rise” turned up zero results.) As Climate Central’s recent work has made starkly apparent, sea level rise amplifies the risk of coastal flooding by increasing the odds for damaging storm surges.

What’s more troubling is that the NRC decided not to enforce their own new standards when it licensed two new reactors at a plant in Georgia in February, the first new nuclear construction in the U.S. in more than 30 years. The Chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko, was the sole NRC commissioner who voted against that license, on the grounds that it would not require that all of the new, post-Fukushima safety guidelines be implemented before the plant starts operating.

So even if the NRC finally does conduct a review of sea level rise-related threats to coastal nuclear facilities, and recommends that plant operators take action to lessen such threats, there still may not be much cause for optimism. After all, if the NRC is not going to require that utilities implement all of its post-Fukushima safety recommendations, then why even have such safety recommendations in the first place?