Washington News Bureau

Report calls for nuclear power plant safety measures to consider future weather threats

WASHINGTON — From intense storms in the southeast, to the spread of wildfires in the west, severe weather events have left behind a trail of damage from coast to coast.

Those weather threats can also put our energy systems at risk. That includes nuclear power plants, which generate about 20 percent of electricity in the U.S.


Now, a new watchdog report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is warning about the need for increased safety measures to protect nuclear power plants against potential future weather threats.

“We’re expecting a lot of changes in weather like increased heat, perhaps increased flooding, stronger storms, sea level rise,” Frank Rusco, a Director for GAO, said. “Pretty much all of the nuclear power plants in the country are in zones that should expect changes in that way.”

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The report points to the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan as an example of the damage severe weather can cause. A massive tsunami flooded the power plant, making it unable to cool the nuclear fuel.

“That caused some damage that released some radioactivity,” Rusco said. “That’s kind of the worst-case scenario.”

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GAO explains the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does have very rigorous safety protocols in the U.S. and made them even stronger after the Fukushima disaster.

But the findings say NRC doesn’t “fully consider potential climate change effects,” arguing it mainly relies on past data, instead of considering future weather changes as well.

“Our report did not find that there are any kind of imminent risks that nuclear power plants face, but we think that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should take climate change projections into account when they’re going forward,” Rusco said. “We should be looking at projections of how the weather and how disasters are going to be in the future, not just how they’ve been in the past.”

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In response, the NRC said it agrees about the need to consider weather patterns but argues it’s already doing that.

“The NRC does not agree with the conclusion that the agency does not address the impacts of climate change,” wrote the Acting Director for Operations. “In effect, the layers of conservatism and defense in depth incorporated into NRC’s processes provide reasonable assurance regarding any plausible natural hazard and combinations at a site for the licensed operational lifetime of the reactor, including those that could result from climate change. Specifically, the processes, tools, methods, models, data, and additional margins provide reasonable assurance of the ability to withstand or mitigate projected changes in natural hazards.”

GAO disagrees and wants NRC to do more. Rusco said GAO will continue to follow up with NRC and monitor the safety protocols.

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