Climate Change: Nuclear Power Plants Struggle to Stay Cool

Climate Change: Nuclear Power Plants Struggle to Stay Cool
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The water in the Rhone river got hotter than ever and was not suitable anymore to chill the burners of the atomic reactors.

Climate Change: Nuclear Power Plants Struggle to Stay Cool. While climate change is creating more challenges with every passing day, it is surely raising safety concerns for the nuclear plants, from the US to France. The scientists are trying hard to take all the necessary measures to keep them safe and working. The Swiss Alps are going through a hard time as the glacial meltdown continues to mount up the Rhone River.

The river is transforming into the world’s most industrialized water reserve. The chilly water from the river, running through the South of France to the Mediterranean Sea, is being used in the boilers of the through coolant and is also being used for agriculture. One of its biggest users is nuclear reactors. The river has been a major water source for more than a quarter of France’s atomic energy production.

But recently this has changed. In addition to a slow-burning heat wave, killing nearly hundreds and setting a wildfire across Western Europe, while lowering the water levels because of a drought, the water in the Rhone river got hotter than ever and was not suitable anymore to chill the burners of the atomic reactors. It just doesn’t seem to be used anymore without expelling water down the stream that would just endanger the aquatic life.

Climate Change: Heat and Drought

A few weeks earlier, Électricité de France (EDF) started to power a few of its reactors, along the Rhone river with some assistance from another major river Garonne. This has become a regular thing. Some similar events of heat and drought also took place in 2018 and 2019. Maintenance and malfunction issues have had a serious impact on nuclear reactors. These have caused France to lose almost 50% of its nuclear power production.  Atomic energy is considered to be the least carbon-intensive source of energy among all the options available. This is most useful when the weather conditions are not that friendly for other carbon-friendly options, like solar or wind energy. But nuclear energy faces its share of issues that climate change offers.

Climate change has worsened the water conditions. Either too much of it is available or none of it. Even though water is considered more related to hydroelectric dams but it surely has a great impact on nuclear energy as well. According to experts, much of nuclear energy, today, is not about atomic reactions anymore, it has become more about how to manage the resources to produce energy on such a massive scale. Nuclear technicians use a very sophisticated method for boiling the water and creating steam to move the turbines. But in reality, much more effort is required to keep the reactors cool. This is the main reason why the nuclear facilities are located near the sea or along big rivers.

Water from the Rhone river

Many other coal and gas-run industries are affected by the hot waters of the rivers but nuclear plants are unique due to their gigantic structure and the importance of the role they play in meeting the massive energy needs. In addition to the rising water temperature, the rising water levels are also a cause of concern as it raises the risks of flooding near the atomic facilities. The marine and aquatic life also sometimes clogs the water pipes and require constant maintenance.

Nuclear plants are built to last for many decades. Most of the nuclear plants were built in the 1970s and 80s. they are still functional today, with the latest improvements of course, but the climate factor was not taken into account too much, which we are eventually encountering. Scientists are now taking all the necessary measures to overcome the changing climate posing.

Regulations from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Most of the concerns related to climate change revolve around safety which the industry experts are working on. After the nuclear disaster of Fukushima in Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) started drafting new regulations to make the existing atomic plants much safer against climate threats, including rising sea levels and storms. The new regulations identified the atomic facilities that are prone to flooding issues under extreme circumstances. But in 2019, these regulations and plans were largely ignored by the Republican leadership in the US based on high costs for considerably lower probability events.

The decision met great disagreements from the environmental groups, activists, and of course nuclear experts, stating that it could be fatal to stay oblivious of the changing dynamics. Now, those threats are once again being brought up as the European and US regulators are discussing extending the lives of the nuclear reactors. They are making sure to take into account all measures necessary to ensure that these plants are equipped with all necessary measures to fight the changing climate.

In 2019, the NRC approved the 20-year extension to a few reactors with Turkey Powerpoint in Florida as the starting point. Several environmental groups went against it based on more severe hurricanes and rising sea levels that these plants have yet to face. They raised the point that the rising levels will be threatening the low-lying plants in ways that the regulators haven’t accounted for. At the start of this year, NRC took back the extensions it planned for the Turkey Point and other plants to take a more extensive look at the environmental review.

Tennessee River in the US

By far the nuclear shutdowns have been due to the rising water temperature, not only in Rhine and Garonne but also in places like the Tennessee River in the US and the coastal seaside where many nuclear plants are located.

In recent years, many nuclear plants have been shut down or are forced to decrease their production capacity due to the rising water temperature that is resulting from cooling down the nuclear boilers. Over the last decades, Connecticut’s Millstone power plant witnessed a couple of shutdowns on extremely hot summer days until the regulating water temperature was raised by 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Climate Change: Nuclear Power Plants Struggle to Stay Cool

Considering the rarity of intensive heat waves and storm outages due to storms, climate-related issues have relatively little impact on energy production activities. To put it in numbers it can reduce energy production to less than 1 percent of the annual output. But this impact is increasingly becoming more and more evident as the global temperature continues to rise. According to a Stanford research report, in 2010 the heat-related outages increased ten times from the ones occurring in the 1990s. in a study conducted in 2011, the impact of global warming on nuclear cooling projected a 3 degree Celsius increase in the temperature of Rhode by the year 2050, indicating more shutdowns owing to the heat waves.

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These could cause serious problems, especially if these outages occur in the summers when the demand is already high for electricity. In countries like France, nuclear energy covers nearly 80% of the total energy needs, these shutdowns are causing serious issues, requiring more dependency on coal and fuel. These outages come at a fairly bad time when Europe is shoring up its energy reserves due to gas and oil shortages amidst the Ukraine war. In the meantime, the French regulators can expect a long summer ahead. The summers and heat will pass but low water levels are expected to persist and can result in further power outages leaving the country dependent on expecting more rains.

Climate Change: Nuclear Power Plants Struggle to Stay Cool

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