Global Warming Goes Nuclear

It's rare when two major long-term challenges intersect in such a dangerous, and glaringly obvious way. Rarer still do such events take place without many people making the all-important connections between them. But such is the case right now as two different extreme weather and climate events, both of which may be aggravated by global warming, are placing three American nuclear facilities in jeopardy — two nuclear power plants in Nebraska and the iconic Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Thus, the U.S. currently faces a bizarre display of what happens when nuclear energy/weapons issues and the climate crisis meet. If we're lucky, the results won't be too damaging  — this time.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko speaks to reporters while visiting the Cooper Station nuclear plant in Nebraska. Credit: NRC Public Affairs.

Let me start with the situation in Nebraska, where the Missouri River has overflowed its banks and flooded parts of two nuclear power plants. The river has encroached upon the Fort Calhoun plant near Blair, and Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville. Although floodwaters are affecting both, the situation at Fort Calhoun is more serious, as floodwaters have already breached two of the plant's flood defenses.

Aerial photos show a facility that looks more like an island than a functional power plant. Although the river is not expected to rise to a level that would reach critical facilities, the high water levels are expected to continue for several weeks. This raises the risk that flooding will weaken parts of the nearly 40-year-old plant's physical structure, and complicates the plant's future.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the agency charged with overseeing the American nuclear industry and ensuring its safety, cited the Fort Calhoun facility for inadequate flood safety protections in 2010. According to the Omaha World Herald, earlier this year the NRC warned the Omaha Public Power District, which operates the plant, that it might receive a second serious citation for an equipment failure that would jeopardize its emergency shutdown systems. The plant is currently listed under one of the NRC's most stringent categories of oversight. 

The emergency operations center at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Credit: LANL/flickr.

The NRC, for its part, has been trying to reassure the public that the situation is under control. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko toured both plants earlier this week, and NRC's Public Affairs staff have been publishing updates via their blog

Here's a portion of a recent entry, which, in light of the recent Associated Press series revealing lax NRC oversight of the nuclear industry, reads rather hollow:

The pictures from the helicopter tour over the Fort Calhoun plant look worse than the situation really is. The plant is surrounded by water, but protected by flood gates, waterproof bunkers and other systems, many put in place by owner Omaha Public Power District as the result of an NRC inspection two years ago that found the plant’s flood protection systems lacking. Now, all the vital safety equipment is safe and dry, despite the fact workers wearing hip-high waders pulling boats laden with equipment walk through 3-plus feet of water around the plant’s perimeter.

In order to determine whether a power plant can withstand future extreme event scenarios, be it river flooding or a hurricane, the NRC looks to past events as a guide. However, this approach doesn't hold up when it comes to global warming, which is already heightening the risk of previously rare or even unprecedented flooding events.

Alyson Kenward, my colleague at Climate Central, has reported on how global warming-induced sea level rise poses a potentially grave threat to coastal nuclear power plants. Specifically, she's reported on Florida's Turkey Point plant and Seabrook Station in New Hampshire. (See our interactive map of global nuclear facilities).

At the Fort Calhoun plant and the Cooper Nuclear Station, the current threat involves inland flooding, which also has a climate change component to it, albeit one that is not quite as straightforward as sea level rise.

Studies show that as the planet has warmed in response to increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the air, the amount of atmospheric water vapor has also shot up. This has helped produce more frequent extreme heavy precipitation events in recent decades. The Missouri River flooding, like the Mississippi River flooding earlier this year, is the result of a combination of heavy rainfall and snowmelt from an unusually thick winter snowpack.

A Skycrane helicopter picks up water to fight the Las Conchas wildfire in New Mexico. Credit: LANL/flickr.

Scientists have shown that climate change has increased the odds of individual flooding events, like one that occurred in England in 2000. Other studies have shown that heavy rainfall events are occurring more frequently in the Northern Hemisphere, and have attributed this trend to warmer temperatures and greater amounts of water vapor in the atmosphere. And looking forward, research shows that in the Upper Midwest, more precipitation is going to fall as heavy rainfall.

Therefore, the record flooding along the Missouri River, and the Mississippi River flooding that preceded it this year, should not be looked at completely divorced from the broader context of a warming world. All extreme weather events now take place in a world that has far more greenhouse gases in the air than at any other time in human history, and although climate change does not “cause” individual extreme events, it does tilt the odds in their favor. To use a boxing analogy (borrowed from my colleague Heidi Cullen), climate change is the trainer, but the weather still throws the individual punches. 

Even more puzzling is the lack of discussion regarding how climate change may be contributing to the massive wildfires in the Southwest, including the 60,000-plus acre Las Conchas fire in New Mexico, which is closing in on the gates of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) — the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

So here we have a combustible mix of climate change and nuclear weapons, which is not good.

Workers check air monitoring equipment near Los Alamos National Laboratory. Credit: LANL/flickr.

The fire is burning through extremely dry lands of mixed conifers and ponderosa pine. Moisture is scarce after a lengthy, intense drought that continues to affect Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, among other states. The small town of Los Alamos, as well as LANL itself, have been evacuated due to the fast-moving blaze, which began on June 26th. Were fire to engulf portions of the lab, it is possible that radioactive materials from stored nuclear waste could be released, but nuclear weapons are not based or tested at the facility.

The Las Conchas fire is just one of more than 35,000 wildfires that have burned upwards of 4.7 million acres so far this year, mainly in the South and Southwest. This is more than double the 10-year average for a year-to-date, and is largely due to the intense drought conditions. As I wrote in this wildfires and climate change explainer:  

Retrospective analyses of historical variations in wildfire activity and climate show that the two are closely linked. Historical variations in climate can explain much of the large year-to-year and decade-to-decade variations in western U.S. fire activity. Thus, climate change is already increasing wildfire activity in the Western US. This may seem surprising, given the number of other factors (including forest management practices) that are known to affect fire activity.

But climate is a dominant factor because the difference between years with large areas burned and years with small areas burned is not so much in the number of fires, but in the number of very large fires.

When climate conditions are right, a relatively small number of fires grow out of control and consume a lot more acreage. 

The explainer goes into more detail about particular scientific findings on wildfires, climate change, and the American West, but this section is worth highlighting here: 

Perhaps most worrisome, a recent report from the National Research Council found that 1.8°F of warming from current conditions (arguably the amount of warming to which we are already committed because of our current and past emissions of greenhouse gases) will lead to significant increases in the amount of western land burned by wildfires, compared to the average area burned during 1950-2003.

In areas that have few plants or trees to burn, the higher temperatures might not have much of an impact, but in parts of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Montana, as much as six times more land area could burn each year compared to what is typical today, the NRC panel found. The same effect is likely to unfold for each 1.8°F of additional warming in the future.

Let's hope that the floods and wildfires of the future don't go “nuclear” on us in a similar manner. Clearly it's time for policymakers, including officials at the NRC and Energy Department, to examine the resilience of the infrastructure they oversee in light of the extreme events that climate change is likely to bring, rather than just letting the past be prologue. My fear is that a few short decades from now, we'll look back at the events of this spring and summer and see them as a quaint prelude to an era in which high consequence, low-probability events occur with far greater regularity.