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Nuclear plant climate change risk assessment, action plans needed: researchers

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New York — Shorter-term risks from climate change for US nuclear power plants include events such as hurricanes, flooding, drought and wildfires, while longer-term risks include sea level rise, coastal erosion and associated siting concerns, a researcher said Tuesday.

"Our research depicts a global challenge with nuclear being one area of power generation that could be impacted by climate change, which means there should be a focus on adaptation and mitigation measures," Sarah Jordaan, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, said in a phone call.

Although some international agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, are starting to publish studies on climate impacts to nuclear power plants, the researchers argue there should be a comprehensive standard for existing and new plants, Jordaan said.

The biggest risks for US plants depend on the timescale being evaluated. Over the shorter term there are risks to nuclear plants from heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, storm surges and floods, as well as longer-term risks, such as temperature increases, shoreline erosion and sea-level rise, according to the article.

Wildfires forced evacuations of nonessential personnel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California in 2014, the article said.

Concerns over sea level rise also raise questions about where best to site new facilities, Jordaan said. Some nuclear power plants face challenging economics in the US, but will likely face challenges from climate change that could be even larger, she said.

OPERATIONAL, MARKET RISKS

In September 2018, Duke Energy's two-unit 1,978 MW Brunswick nuclear power plant, just south of Wilmington, North Carolina, was forced to shut down due to Hurricane Florence.

Additionally, the 1.2-GW McGuire-2 unit was shut down, while Southern Company's 1.2-GW Vogtle-1 was also forced offline, according to data from Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

An increase in storm intensity, which scientists have said could be a symptom of climate change, would increase operational risks.

Other climate-related risks could "negatively impact costs and total electricity generation by, for example, lowering thermal efficiency, reducing load, and increasing the number of shutdowns," according to the journal article.

Because nuclear plants need water for cooling, persistent changes in temperature have created challenges, Jordaan said, with warmer temperatures affecting overall operations.

"Over the past decade, intake water supplies with temperatures too high to discharge to the environment or provide sufficient cooling have contributed to an increased number of shutdowns and reduced output in plants across" the US, the article said.

And in Europe, an extreme 2003 heat wave resulted in shutdowns or output reduction in more than thirty plants.

If you look at this from a systems approach, then nuclear power plant shutdowns can affect overall grid operations, Jordaan said.

S&P Global Platts Analytics data showed that in September 2018, an incremental 1.64 Bcf/d of natural gas power burn would have been needed to replace the nuclear power generation outages in the Southeast US as a result of Hurricane Florence, if all the nuclear generation capacity were replaced with gas.

There are also questions about water availability in some regions that have not been well quantified, Jordaan said. "There is a suite of shorter-term concerns and longer-term concerns that need to be on the radar as the power system evolves," Jordaan said.

A comprehensive risk assessment by international agencies and development of national and international standards is necessary to mitigate climate change risks for new and existing nuclear power plants, the researchers found.

Jordaan co-authored the article entitled "The Climate Vulnerabilities of Global Nuclear Power," along with Afreen Siddiqi, William Kakenmaster and Alice Hill. The research appears in the November edition of the journal Global Environmental Politics, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

-- Jared Anderson, jared.anderson@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Rocco Canonica, newsdesk@spglobal.com