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How Rising Seas Could Sink Nuclear Plants On The East Coast

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In 2011, a tsunami sent waves as high as 49 feet crashing over the seawalls surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, causing meltdowns at three of the plant's reactors. After that incident, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ordered nuclear facilities in the U.S. to review and update their plans for addressing extreme seismic activity and potential flooding from other events, such as sea level rise and storm surges. Those plans aren't due until March 2015, which means that many plants have yet to even lay out their their potential vulnerabilities, let alone address them.

During the 1970s and 1980s, when many nuclear reactors were first built, most operators estimated that seas would rise at a slow, constant rate. That is, if the oceans rose a fraction of an inch one year, they could be expected to rise by the same amount the next year and every year in the future.

But the seas are now rising much faster than they did in the past, largely due to climate change, which accelerates thermal expansion and melts glaciers and ice caps. Sea levels rose an average of 8 inches between 1880 and 2009, or about 0.06 inches per year. But in the last 20 years, sea levels have risen an average of 0.13 inches per year -- about twice as fast.

And it's only getting worse. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has laid out four different projections for estimated sea level rise by 2100. Even the agency's best-case scenario assumes that sea levels will rise at least 8.4 inches by the end of this century. NOAA's worst-case scenario, meanwhile, predicts that the oceans will rise nearly 7 feet in the next 86 years.

But most nuclear power facilities were built well before scientists understood just how high sea levels might rise in the future. And for power plants, the most serious threat is likely to come from surges during storms. Higher sea levels mean that flooding will travel farther inland, creating potential hazards in areas that may have previously been considered safe. During Superstorm Sandy, for example, flooding threatened the water intake systems at the Oyster Creek and Salem nuclear power plants in New Jersey. As a safety precaution, both plants were powered down. But even when a plant is not operating, the spent fuel stored on-site, typically uranium, will continue to emit heat and must be cooled using equipment that relies on the plant's own power. Flooding can cause a loss of power, and in serious conditions it can damage backup generators. Without a cooling system, reactors can overheat and damage the facility to the point of releasing radioactive material.

Salem and Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Stations

Salem-map-af015f553df7a7d3caf1a4489733f9f3
Operated by PSEG Nuclear, LLC
Reactor License Expires 2046 Plant Sea-level Rise Estimate 2046 NOAA Best Case 2046 NOAA Worst Case
Unit 1 Pressurized Water 8/13/2036 6 in 3.6 in 21.48 in
Unit 2 Pressurized Water 4/18/2040 6 in 3.6 in 21.48 in
Hope Creek Boiling Water 4/11/2046 6 in 3.6 in 21.48 in
Sources: PSEG Nuclear spokesperson, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Unit 1, Unit 2, Hope Creek)
Plant Elevation Above Sea Level
PresentDay2046NOAABest Case2046NOAAWorst CaseStorm(HuffPost Est.)9.0 ft8.7 ft7.2 ft0.9 ftProjection0 ft
Plant elevation assuming NOAA worst-case sea-level rise and peak storm tide recorded during Superstorm Sandy, 2012
0ft-28dbe7440ef1420c885bb9f5e5e5de87 Present-day sea level
Storm-8431cf419e6048c0e5af29ce2e7dbda1 Estimated worst-case flooding
in 2046 during storm.
See how other coastal nuclear plants could be impacted by sea-level rise and storms: Turkey Point, St. Lucie, Brunswick, Seabrook, South Texas Project, Millstone and Pilgrim.

Though water levels during Superstorm Sandy came close to reaching the Salem 1 nuclear reactor at Lower Alloways Creek, N.J., “near-term sea rise is not an immediate concern” for the facility, said Joe Delmar, the nuclear communications manager for the plant's owner, PSEG Nuclear. Company documents provided to The Huffington Post indicate that the Salem plant was designed to withstand flooding of up to roughly 30 feet above sea level, and PSEG estimates that sea levels will increase 6 inches by 2046, when the operating licenses for the plant’s reactors will expire. But using NOAA's evaluation of future sea level estimates, The Huffington Post found the worst-case rise in sea level at the plant to be 1.79 feet by 2046 -- more than a foot higher than the estimate that PSEG Nuclear is using at the Salem plant. More troublingly, HuffPost estimates that if sea levels rise to the heights projected in NOAA’s worst-case scenario, and then a storm hits on top of that, floodwaters could rise to less than a foot below the Salem plant’s base.

Nuclear plants were originally given a license to operate for 40 years, and in the late 1990s, the NRC began accepting applications to extend those licenses for an additional 20 years. While it’s not clear how many current plants will still be operating in 2100, most facilities store their nuclear waste on-site, where it can continue to emit radiation for thousands of years. There is currently no long-term national storage site for spent nuclear fuel in the U.S., as Congress cut the funding to build such a facility at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in 2011. While there are no near-term plans to remove nuclear waste from the coastal plants threatened by rising seas, "the expectation is that [waste] won't remain on-site," said NRC Senior Public Affairs Officer Roger Hannah.

Despite the increased risk of flooding due to rising sea levels, some plant operators have not factored this into their long-term plans. In 2010, when Florida Power and Light Company applied for a license to build two additional reactors at the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station in Homestead, Florida, the NRC asked the plant's owners to explain "how potential sea-level rise due to potential future climate change is accounted for" in their plans, NRC documents show. The company declined to discuss climate change in its analysis, and used a projection that assumed a constant sea level rise of just 1 foot per century, which is 5.6 feet lower than NOAA's worst-case projection for 2100.

Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station

Turkey-point-map-7e61523ba3472bdd08dd9978f14184d4
Operated by Florida Power & Light Co.
Reactor License Expires 2033 Plant Sea-level Rise Estimate 2033 NOAA Best Case 2033 NOAA Worst Case
Unit 3 Pressurized Water 7/19/2032 Approx. 4 in 2.76 in 13.08 in
Unit 4 Pressurized Water 4/10/2033 Approx. 4 in 2.76 in 13.08 in
Sources: Government Accountability Office, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Unit 3, Unit 4)
Plant Elevation Above Sea Level
PresentDay2033NOAABest Case2033NOAAWorst CaseStorm(HuffPost Est.)18.0 ft17.8 ft16.9 ft9.0 ftProjection0 ft
Plant elevation assuming NOAA worst-case sea-level rise and peak storm tide recorded during Hurricane Andrew, 1992
0ft-05719ccafb604969fa9083d192b57cfa Present-day sea level
Storm-2adda881e44154e3d0d96fb9572468e0 Estimated worst-case flooding
in 2033 during storm.

Ahead of the start of the Atlantic hurricane season on June 1, The Huffington Post and Weather.com identified eight nuclear power plants that are likely to be vulnerable to flooding by 2100 under NOAA's projections for rising sea levels. Though the operating licenses for each plant will expire before 2100, the potential exists for flooding much earlier than that. We combined the elevation of each plant with the projections for future sea level rise based on methods contained in NOAA's 2012 report. To estimate future worst-case flooding scenarios, we added the historic peak storm tides recorded at each site to NOAA's worst-case sea level projections for the year when the plant's current operating license is set to expire.

St. Lucie Plant

St-lucie-map-969a7c89027ec1d47e53a61c62435396
Operated by Florida Power & Light Co.
Reactor License Expires 2043 Plant Sea-level Rise Estimate 2043 NOAA Best Case 2043 NOAA Worst Case
Unit 1 Pressurized Water 3/01/2036 NA (due 2015) 3.36 in 19.44 in
Unit 2 Pressurized Water 4/06/2043 NA (due 2015) 3.36 in 19.44 in
Sources: Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Unit 1, Unit 2)
Plant Elevation Above Sea Level
PresentDay2043NOAABest Case2043NOAAWorst CaseStorm(HuffPost Est.)18.0 ft17.7 ft16.4 ft9.3 ftProjection0 ft
Plant elevation assuming NOAA worst-case sea-level rise and peak storm tide recorded during Hurricane Frances, 2004
0ft-b56b5188f0408cfe5f9a722ff59cadfb Present-day sea level
Storm-0c25a03a49ca3504c85eac0bde47c941 Estimated worst-case flooding
in 2043 during storm.

Brunswick Steam Electric Plant

Nc-map-454358ae960b9e4d8753b16abfd9779f
Operated by Carolina Power & Light Co.
Reactor License Expires 2036 Plant Sea-level Rise Estimate 2036 NOAA Best Case 2036 NOAA Worst Case
Unit 1 Boiling Water 9/08/2036 NA (due 2015) 3.0 in 14.88 in
Unit 2 Boiling Water 12/27/2034 NA (due 2015) 3.0 in 14.88 in
Sources: Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Unit 1, Unit 2)
Plant Elevation Above Sea Level
PresentDay2036NOAABest Case2036NOAAWorst CaseStorm(HuffPost Est.)20.0 ft19.8 ft18.8 ft3.8 ftProjection0 ft
Plant elevation assuming NOAA worst-case sea-level rise and peak storm tide recorded during Hurricane Hazel, 1954
0ft-b1e80469d232a369259d8760b7d4f3a0 Present-day sea level
Storm-a1f72f270252cd19bc782afde8326d27 Estimated worst-case flooding
in 2036 during storm.

Seabrook Station

Nh-map-675eb576b8ca37efb5bb0491cb53b346
Operated by NextEra Energy Seabrook, LLC
Reactor License Expires 2030 Plant Sea-level Rise Estimate 2030 NOAA Best Case 2030 NOAA Worst Case
Unit 1 Pressurized Water 3/15/2030 NA (due 2015) 2.52 in 11.4 in
Sources: Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Unit 1)
Plant Elevation Above Sea Level
PresentDay2030NOAABest Case2030NOAAWorst CaseStorm(HuffPost Est.)20.0 ft19.8 ft19.1 ft11.5 ftProjection0 ft
Plant elevation assuming NOAA worst-case sea-level rise and peak storm tide recorded during a January 2010 storm
0ft-1bbd0147e2f8e57c911dfdd77639110f Present-day sea level
Storm-2eb6e0f1b436f9bd1f6e89d04f58b8ef Estimated worst-case flooding
in 2030 during storm.

South Texas Project

Tx-map-66d1b1ed478a0cdf1a3560943a59c4d7
Operated by STP Nuclear Operating Co.
Reactor License Expires 2028 Plant Sea-level Rise Estimate 2028 NOAA Best Case 2028 NOAA Worst Case
Unit 1 Pressurized Water 8/20/2027 3.6 in 2.4 in 10.32 in
Unit 2 Pressurized Water 12/15/2028 3.6 in 2.4 in 10.32 in
Sources: Final Safety Analysis Report, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Unit 1, Unit 2)
Plant Elevation Above Sea Level
PresentDay2028NOAABest Case2028NOAAWorst CaseStorm(HuffPost Est.)28.0 ft27.8 ft27.1 ft8.6 ftProjection0 ft
Plant elevation assuming NOAA worst-case sea-level rise and peak storm tide recorded during Hurricane Carla, 1961
0ft-8af077d6933193653820ce0c0e7f4d84 Present-day sea level
Storm-6445594a26d6d1218eb08f0ef47ef823 Estimated worst-case flooding
in 2028 during storm.

Millstone Power Station

Ct-map-fa360e163231c59738896037a884d487
Operated by Dominion Nuclear Connecticut, Inc.
Reactor License Expires 2045 Plant Sea-level Rise Estimate 2045 NOAA Best Case 2045 NOAA Worst Case
Unit 2 Pressurized Water 7/31/2035 NA (due 2015) 3.6 in 20.76 in
Unit 3 Pressurized Water 11/25/2045 NA (due 2015) 3.6 in 20.76 in
Sources: Dominion Nuclear spokesperson, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Unit 2, Unit 3)
Plant Elevation Above Sea Level
PresentDay2045NOAABest Case2045NOAAWorst CaseStorm(HuffPost Est.)14.0 ft13.7 ft12.3 ft3.2 ftProjection0 ft
Plant elevation assuming NOAA worst-case sea-level rise and peak storm tide recorded during the "Long Island Express" Hurricane, 1938
0ft-4a84d2594090829892df4dcea13132e8 Present-day sea level
Storm-38f318c6af3e9923dfff25217b8786d0 Estimated worst-case flooding
in 2045 during storm.

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station

Mass-map-36975bd150ec1869b65e4228a93ed864
Operated by Entergy Nuclear Operations, Inc.
Reactor License Expires 2032 Plant Sea-level Rise Estimate 2032 NOAA Best Case 2032 NOAA Worst Case
Unit 1 Boiling Water 6/08/2032 NA (due 2015) 2.64 in 12.48 in
Sources: Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Unit 1)
Plant Elevation Above Sea Level
PresentDay2032NOAABest Case2032NOAAWorst CaseStorm(HuffPost Est.)23.0 ft22.8 ft22.0 ft12.1 ftProjection0 ft
Plant elevation assuming NOAA worst-case sea-level rise and peak storm tide recorded during a 1978 blizzard
0ft-1c6caf15aa99c47280c00ad5e6111d83 Present-day sea level
Storm-5305754b1748ee2028e26a1b5a34cf52 Estimated worst-case flooding
in 2032 during storm.
Sources: U.S. Geological Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Google Maps and Weather.com
Maps assume no mitigation efforts. Plants with adequate flood protection or those slated for closure were not included.
Sea-level projections for years prior to 2100 are derived using the formula in the NOAA's 2012 Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment report.
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