Is slowly rising sea level really a concern for nuclear power plants?

Christina Nunez wrote a piece for National Geographic titled As Sea Levels Rise, Are Coastal Nuclear Plants Ready?.

NuclearFearSponsoredbyShell 2sm

It is a journalistically balanced piece that poses a worrying question about nuclear plant vulnerability. It begins by describing reasons to support nuclear energy along with reasons why some oppose and fear it. It includes critical commentary from a couple of the usual suspects — David Lochbaum of the UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists) and Matthew McKinsey of the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) — along with responses to those comments by Scott Burnell from the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and Jim Reilly and Tom Kauffman of the NEI (Nuclear Energy Institute).

However, the critics get both the first and the last word in the article and the very existence of the article in the first place tells readers that this is something that should cause them to be concerned. I’m a strong supporter of the use of nuclear energy as a powerful tool in the battle against climate change. It is frustrating when critics spread the notion that emission free nuclear plants are especially vulnerable to the effects of unmitigated climate change.

The early part of the article includes the following scary tale.

The disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi showed what can happen when a massive surge of water hits a nuclear plant. Seas of nearly 50 feet washed over it during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, knocking out the power needed to run its cooling systems. A last-resort bank of batteries lasted only eight hours. As a result, three reactors suffered partial meltdowns and radiation leaked into the air and ocean.

The event gave nuclear a black eye, prompting countries worldwide to take a closer look at their power plants. In the United Kingdom, for example, a pair of reactors were taken offline in 2013 because of concerns that an extreme event could overwhelm its seawall, which was then improved.

Though Ms. Nunez later quotes an industry spokesman saying that nuclear plants have been “battle-tested” and shown their resilience to storms like Katrina and Sandy, the impact is different because it comes from the industry’s media relations person and is not framed as the result of the author’s independent investigation into the performance of hundreds of nuclear plants in the face of dozens of named storms over several decades.

For example, Turkey Point, one of the stars of the article, rode through a direct hit by Andrew with little or no damage. That storm was one of the strongest to ever land in the US and it virtually wiped Homestead, Florida off of the map.

Ms. Nunez did not quote any independent experts that might have helped provide additional perspective on the difference between the effects of a huge, sudden, 45 foot high tsunami and gradual sea level changes that might take place over several decades.

That expert might have helped her to convey more confidence to her readers that the people who are responsible for nuclear plant safety are aware of the issues and taking effective action to protect their valuable assets.

While I recognize that ads on the web are often placed by algorithms based on both story content and visitor interests, I’ve decorated this piece with a couple of the ads displayed when I accessed the article. If these ads are visible to everyone when they visit, I hope they help to ease fears by illustrating the need to approach negative articles with skepticism because of the competitive nature of the energy business.

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There are many people, organizations and corporations that have a vested interest in spreading Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) about the safety and security of nuclear energy production facilities.

Even those who vociferously proclaim that they are working in the public interest have donors that make it abundantly clear that they are not supposed to encourage the use of nuclear energy. Right, Matthew?

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