Nuclear Plants Vulnerable to Climate Change

July 24, 2021

Nuclear plants have historically been shown vulnerable to extreme heat and cold. Continuing climate changes are bringing other obstacles. (Jellyfish anyone?)

Although the percentage increase in outages is small in absolute terms, it seems obvious that those outages will be occurring at the times when the nuclear output is most needed – as seen in this past winter’s Texas blackout.

Ars Technica:

With extreme weather causing power failures in California and Texas, it’s increasingly clear that the existing power infrastructure isn’t designed for these new conditions. Past research has shown that nuclear power plants are no exception, with rising temperatures creating cooling problems for them. Now, a comprehensive analysis looking at a broader range of climate events shows that it’s not just hot weather that puts these plants at risk—it’s the full range of climate disturbances.

Heat has been one of the most direct threats, as higher temperatures mean that the natural cooling sources (rivers, oceans, lakes) are becoming less efficient heat sinks. However, this new analysis shows that hurricanes and typhoons have become the leading causes of nuclear outages, at least in North America and South and East Asia. Precautionary shutdowns for storms are routine, and so this finding is perhaps not so surprising. But other factors—like the clogging of cooling intake pipes by unusually abundant jellyfish populations—are a bit less obvious.

Overall this latest analysis calculates that the frequency of climate-related nuclear plant outages is almost eight times higher than it was in the 1990s. The analysis also estimates that the global nuclear fleet will lose up 1.4 percent—about 36 TWh—of its energy production in the next 40 years, and up to 2.4 percent, or 61 TWh, by 2081-2100.

The author analyzed publicly available databases from the International Atomic Energy Agency to identify all climate-linked shutdowns (partial and complete) of the world’s 408 operational reactors. Unplanned outages are generally very well documented, and available data made it possible to calculate trends in the frequency of outages that were linked to environmental causes over the past 30 years. The author also used more detailed data from the last decade (2010 – 2019) to provide one of the first analyses of which types of climate events have had the most impact on nuclear power.

While the paper doesn’t directly link the reported events to climate change, the findings do show an overall increase in the number of outages due to a range of climate events.

The two main categories of climate disruptions broke down into thermal disruptions (heat, drought, and wildfire) and storms (including hurricanes, typhoons, lightning, and flooding). In the case of heat and drought, the main problem is the lack of cool enough water—or in the case of drought, enough water at all—to cool the reactor. However, there were also a number of outages due to ecological responses to warmer weather; for example, larger than usual jellyfish populations have blocked the intake pipes on some reactors.

Storms and wildfires, on the other hand, caused a range of problems, including structural damage, precautionary preemptive shutdowns, reduced operations, and employee evacuations. In the timeframe of 2010 to 2019, the leading causes of outages were hurricanes and typhoons in most parts of the world, although heat was still the leading factor in Western Europe (France in particular). While these represented the most frequent causes, the analysis also showed that droughts were the source of the longest disruptions, and thus the largest power losses.

The author calculated that the average frequency of climate-linked outages went from 0.2 outages per year in the 1990s to 1.5 outages in the timeframe of 2010 to 2019. A retrospective analysis further showed that for every 1°C rise in temperature (above the average temperature between 1951 and 1980), the energy output of the global fleet fell about 0.5 percent.

This analysis also shows that climate-associated outages have become the leading cause of disruptions to nuclear power production—other causes of outages have only increased 50 percent in the same timeframe. Projecting into the future, the author calculates that, if no mitigation measures are put into place, the disruptions will continue to increase through the rest of this century.

“All energy technologies, including renewables, will be significantly affected by climate change,” writes Professor Jacapo Buongiorno, who was not involved in the study, in an email to Ars. Buongiorno is the Tepco Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) and he co-chaired the MIT study on The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon Constrained World. “The results are not surprising—nuclear plants can experience unplanned outages due to severe events (e.g., hurricanes, tornadoes) or heat waves, the frequency of which is increasing.”

Although there is relatively little research on the topic of climate effects on nuclear power specifically, some projects are already underway to adapt nuclear plants to the changing climate. For example, the US Department of Energy recently invested in a project researching methods to reduce the amount of water needed by nuclear facilities (e.g. advanced dry cooling).

“Existing nuclear plants are already among the most resilient assets of our energy infrastructure,” writes Buongiorno. “The current fleet is adapting to rising sea levels (for those plants located in areas at potential risk of flood) and the increasing intensity of storms. New nuclear reactor technologies will be even more resilient, as in many instances that are being designed to be dry cooled (i.e. not using river/ocean water for rejecting heat to the ambient) as well as capable of operating in ‘island mode,’ i.e. disconnected from the grid and ready to restart before other large power plants in the event of a blackout.”

Other nuclear technologies, such as pebble-bedmolten salt, and advanced small modulator reactors, may also provide more climate-resistant solutions, but these are all still under development. In general, the strict regulations in place for nuclear reactors make it particularly difficult to incorporate newer technologies. Even as these technologies become available, it will likely require further reactor downtime to install new components. So, at least in the short term, even nuclear power will likely contribute to the increasing frequency of climate-related power shortages.

“The short term” being an unknowable, since the first next generation reactors won’t be operating in the US before the late 2020s, and it will take time to evaluate their performance before a big build-out can take place.

10 Responses to “Nuclear Plants Vulnerable to Climate Change”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Even outside of climate change, I’ve long been a great fan of PV solar and wind, because they’re waterless, fuelless technologies that can be sited in places where coolant water is scarce or unreliable.

  2. John Oneill Says:

    Climate change will affect everything, nuclear included. For example, heat cuts solar output -‘A typical temperature coefficient is 0.5%/°C. So, if on a hot day your solar panel heats up to 35°C, you can expect your solar panel’s efficiency to drop by around 5%.’ Smoke from wildfires would would be much worse.
    Nuclear is not immune to climate change, but because it is so compact, it is easier to take countermeasures than with most forms of energy. For example, hydro is by far the largest source of non-fossil power, but can be severely affected by drought. The flow into Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam this year has been only a quarter of ‘normal’ flows. But even in a normal year, the two reactors at Diablo Canyon provide five times as much power as the Hoover Dam, they’re cooled by the Pacific Ocean, which is a pretty reliable heat sink, and they’re designed to withstand a 32 foot tsunami. So why is California, allegedly a state concerned about climate change, closing them in a year ?
    Opponents claim that renewables will replace them. The owners say that renewables mandates will eat the reactors’ lunch for 50% of the time by 2030. The other 50% will be replaced by gas. Since batteries are allegedly getting so cheap, why not stall the reactor phaseout, change ‘renewables mandate ‘ to ‘non-fossil mandate’, and increase it from 60 to 70%? Then instead of fratricide between carbon free sources to the benefit of gas, you could have real and sustainable progress.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      It looks like it was PG&E’s call to shut down Diablo Canyon in 2024. A lot can change in three years.


      The massive 2,200-megawatt Diablo Canyon Power Plant is scheduled to shut down beginning in 2024, ending California’s reliance on nuclear energy.

      The decision to retire Diablo Canyon, the largest power plant in California, is no longer up for debate. In 2016, the plant’s owner, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, decided not to renew its operating licenses. PG&E determined it was too costly to continue operating the plant and that cheaper sources of energy could be developed to replace it. Since then, the state Legislature and the California Public Utilities Commission have ratified the decision to close Diablo Canyon.

      It’s expensive to run these power plants on a part-time basis. Batteries might make it worth is to run all the time and just store the excess, I suppose.

  3. J4Zonian Says:

    Well, you often can’t cook during a power outrage, so peanut butter and jellyfish sandwiches are perfect. Should be useful in emergencies.

    On a more trivial note, Buongiorno seems unduly optimistic about a technology for which “there is relatively little research on the topic of climate effects” and for technologies that don’t exist, and experience for the one that does doesn’t seem to gibe with the amount of reduction per degree of warming. It seems quite a bit less resilient than wind and solar properly prepared, and that’s what’s been apparent in every emergency I’m aware of. Maybe that’s not a representative sample but I’m highly suspicious about yet another lie being told about an industry so full of them nothing they say can be taken at face value.

  4. How terrible. Some nuclear plants might have to shut off once in a blue moon (undoubtedly caused by climate change) due to cooling water being below a specified value, while wind and solar don’t have to worry about water problems. It’s just that wind and solar have to shut down all the time when it gets dark or calm out and they absolutely have to be backed up with fossil fuels!

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Nuclear power plants run with a lot of overhead costs, which is fine when they’re running full time and making money selling power on the grid. The problem is they can’t compete with cheap power unless they run at a loss when solar/wind/storage is providing cheaper power.

      They do have to shut down when their cooling water gets too warm, as happened with the French nukes during their last major heat wave.

      Nuclear power plants are designed to run 24/7 (barring some heat/drought or hurricane events), so I wonder how much of their income from selling power was during what is now the midday sweet spot for solar. Solar and wind’s ROI is very fast compared to nuclear power plants, so I can see why private companies prefer them as an investment.

      • John Oneill Says:

        ‘.. I can see why private companies prefer them as an investment’
        They get a 26% federal tax credit as a sweetener, and a guarantee that all their power will sell, needed or not. A market designed to reduce carbon emissions would reward generators that work all the time, not those that flood the market on sunny days, then disappear when power demand peaks in the evening. Jellyfish or not, Diablo Canyon’s annual capacity factor has ranged from 91 to 96%, whereas solar there gets about 28%. The regulator has called for 11,500 MW of new capacity to replace DC, but only 3,500 has to be renewable.
        Climate change will hit renewable sources with more unpredictability than nuclear. New Zealand is supposed to be over 80% renewable, but this year and next we will be importing record amounts of coal, because our hydro lakes are low. At sunset today, California’s batteries were running at 100% of capacity, and nuclear at 97%. Wind was running below 25%. Gas made up two thirds of the state’s power. Gas was over 65% all day, except for a few hours around midday, when it went down to just below 50%.

        • John Swallow Says:

          It is so refreshing to have the views of someone such as John Oneill, who uses his time to look at this situation regarding how electricity is generated in a realistic manner rather than looking at everything through the distorted lens where the climate change alarmist ‘think’ that there is a looming climate crises, when none exists. The site that John Oneill presented is great, and I shall use it often. It shows that in California, where they claim to be phasing out fossil fuels, that they generate 72.28% of their electricity using natural gas &, as far as I know, natural gas is listed everywhere as being a fossil fuel. They claim to desire to shut down the source of 13.16% of their electricity, nuclear, while thinking that what now provides a paltry 1.45% of their electricity, wind, is going to take up the deficit left by no nuclear power. I have seen the Palm Springs wind farms where the turbine are everywhere one looks when driving by them on I-10. The last time we went by them, none of them were turning, imagine that.

          Instead of wind and solar, why isn’t geothermal, such as what I have seen on each of my three trips to New Zealand and to the Wairakei, New Zealand’s first geothermal plant, that was opened in 1958, not being built in the US where there are many geothermal sites available. In California geothermal now produces 5.39% of their electricity.
          I for one think that money is being squandered on both “ugly wind generators or ugly solar panels”, while geothermal is totally ignored in spite of it working well at the Navy’s China Lake facility in CA.
          “Currently, two geothermal power plants at China Lake are the only ones on military lands. A private company, which built, owns, and operates the power plants at China Lake, sells the electricity to a utility company and pays the Navy royalties on these sales as well as other types of compensation.”

          John Oneill Says: “They get a 26% federal tax credit as a sweetener, and a guarantee that all their power will sell, needed or not”. This is why renewables are built at all: “The billionaire was even more explicit about his goal of reducing his company’s tax payments. “I will do anything that is basically covered by the law to reduce Berkshire’s tax rate,” he said. “For example, on wind energy, we get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit.” Warren Buffett

  5. John Swallow Says:

    It appears that California has many problems and most of them were brough on by their clueless far left politicians.
    Charge Your Electric Vehicle During Heat Waves
    By The Heartland Institute | Jun 25, 2021 6:15 PM ET

    At the same time, California has been looking to expand electric vehicle ownership and make charging stations more accessible.
    California suffers from an electric grid problem, because the state has eschewed reliable fossil fuels in favor of unreliable green energy, such as wind and solar power. This presents a problem, because such sources don’t work when the wind stagnates during heat waves or at night. when there’s no sunlight. Simultaneously, the state is exacerbating this problem, creating ever more demand for electricity by promoting electric vehicles and shutting down access to natural gas appliances.
    Deliberately redesigning the state’s electric grid from one that historically supplied power 24 hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of the weather, to one that can only supply power reliably when weather conditions are Goldilocks-like (“just right”) was, at the very least, foolish.
    In 2020, California’s electric grid came within minutes of collapse due to heavy loads at the same time solar power slumped at sunset. On August 17, during the CAISO Board of Governors Meeting, CAISO President Steve Berber let loose with this bit of reality.
    California has traded energy security to kneel before the false prophet of green energy. Instead of using reliable and affordable coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants, they are increasingly relying on intermittent and unreliable industrial wind and solar facilities. The people of California, and perhaps the West in general, may pay the price for that homage, if the power grid collapses during the ongoing heat wave.

  6. John Swallow Says:

    It is true that nuclear is now, and will continue to supply a vital part of the world’s electrical needs, in spite of what Peter Gleick may believe. In France, it makes up 75% of their supply of electricity and they export electricity to nations, such as Germany, who were stupid enough to believe that wind and solar will supply their needs. Then we hear uninformed people claim that nuclear power is not safe and ‘not in my back yard’. How much smaller of a back yard could one have than on a nuclear submarine where no one has suffered any injuries due to nuclear power?
    “More people have fallen off of roofs installing solar panels than have been killed in the entire history of nuclear power in the U.S.,” adds Meigs.

    The World Nuclear Associationexternal link maintains that commercial nuclear power generation is “extremely safe” and the “risk of accidents in nuclear power plants is low and declining”.
    “In over 16,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 32 countries, there have been only three major accidents to nuclear power plants,” the Association declares on its website.

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