Weather Forecast: A Cloudy Future for Nukes

In the 1950s, when the first nuclear reactors were conceived, there were few computers. Engineers created blueprints using lead pencils and slide rules. Back then the atmosphere’s carbon content was a mere 310 parts-per-million and a “storm of the century” came along about once every 100 years, as you would expect.

We now inhabit a different planet. With CO2 levels the highest they’ve been in 15 million years, complex computer models warn of increasing dislocations from climate chaos. Mega-storms are coming to seem the norm. The argument that “low-carbon” nuclear technology offers a solution to global warming overlooks the fact that the world’s 437 reactors were not designed to withstand unforeseen extremes of weather change. Aging reactors, dangerous from their infancy, are becoming increasingly vulnerable in this new epoch of unstable weather.

The government’s Third National Climate Assessment confirms the fears that we have tipped the climate. Global temperatures, accompanied by increasingly severe fires, floods, and hurricanes, continue to break records. Last year’s heat wave left the Midwest as parched as the blistered plains of East Africa, while Superstorm Sandy brought a taste of Bangladesh to the boroughs of New York.

Sandy knocked three reactors offline. A reactor at Indian Point, 24 miles north of New York City, had to be manually powered down. At Oyster Creek, a “Fukushima style” reactor on the Jersey shore, the storm surge came within six inches of disabling emergency pumps needed to keep spent fuel assemblies from overheating.

Sandy was only the latest warning. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew slammed into Florida, briefly putting the Turkey Point reactor on the path to a meltdown. In June 1998, a tornado hit Ohio’s Davis-Besse reactor, exposing the spent-fuel pools to the risk of ignition. In 2010, a tornado took down the power grid protecting Michigan’s Fermi 2 – the largest Fukushima-style Mark 1 reactor on Earth. (Note: The 2011 North American tornado season was the most deadly in 50 years.)

Today, nine coastal reactors, from California to the Gulf to the East Coast, are at risk from rising seas. And it’s not just that sea levels are rising. On August 12, Connecticut’s Millstone reactor had to be shut down when cooling water – drawn from the ocean – became too warm to use.

As storms and floods become more frequent and fierce, 88 US reactors remain at risk from “inland tsunamis.” In April 2011, Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun reactor was swamped by the flood-swollen Missouri River. The reactor remains offline and may never reopen. Last year, two Nuclear Regulatory Commission engineers revealed the NRC hid a report warning that 34 reactors were at risk of catastrophic flooding from the collapse of aging dams. (Note: There have been more than 700 dam failures since 1975.)

When New Yorkers begin discussing how to defend Manhattan against rising seas, you know the climate change “debate” is over. But for all the talk of spending billions to protect coastal cities, scant attention has been paid to the equally pressing need to start dismantling at-risk nuclear (as well as oil, gas, and chemical) facilities located along our shores and rivers.

Because decommissioning is costly and time-consuming, plant operators and the NRC prefer to extend the status quo – fudging safety records to extend the lives of reactors that should have been retired after 40 years of use. While it takes massive amounts of time and treasure to decommission a nuclear plant (the NRC estimates $1 billion and 10 years per reactor, but the latest operator’s estimates have doubled that figure), the costs of addressing a nuclear accident can be incalculable. Dealing with the Fukushima cleanup is expected to take 30 years and cost in excess of $250 billion.

Damage from a nuclear accident is, essentially, eternal. Radioactive isotopes blasted into the air at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, as well as many lesser-known reactor accidents worldwide, are still being detected by radiation monitors around the globe. As a result, Earth’s atmosphere is not only choked with CO2, it also is ablaze with life-altering isotopes.

All in all, the forecast is clear: The weather’s getting worse and reactors aren’t getting any safer. It’s time to de-nuke, decommission, and dismantle.

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