GAO report looks at climate change and nuclear power

April 9, 2024, 9:30AMNuclear News

A new study by the Government Accountability Office researched potential impacts of climate change–related hazards on the U.S. nuclear fleet and found clear risks. In the report, which was released to the public last week, the GAO recommends that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission address these possible threats during the licensing process.

Climate change is expected to exacerbate natural hazards—including heat, drought, wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, and sea level rise, in addition to extreme cold weather events. “These natural hazards pose risks to nuclear power plants,” the report states; “however, [the] NRC does not use climate change projections data to identify and assess risk as part of the safety reviews it conducts or the probabilistic risk assessments it reviews.”

The GAO concludes, “Commercial nuclear power plants in the United States were licensed and built an average of 42 years ago, and weather patterns and climate-related risks to their safety and operations have changed since their construction.” According to the study, “[The] NRC has the opportunity to consider climate risks more fully and, in doing so, to better fulfill its mission to protect public health and safety.”

The study: The GAO looked at data and spoke to nuclear personnel from November 2022 to the present day. Sources included staff from the NRC, the Department of Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the U.S. Forest Service. They also visited Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona and Turkey Point nuclear power plant in Florida—plants that were selected on the basis of their exposure to a variety of natural hazards exacerbated by climate change—and interviewed staff.

The GAO obtained NRC data on the location of all 54 operating U.S. nuclear power plants, as well as the 21 shut-down nuclear power plants that have spent nuclear fuel stored in spent fuel pools or in dry cask storage.

NRC response: The NRC was provided with a draft report and responded with written comments for the GAO to incorporate in the final publication. The commission said it is already implementing or planning to implement additional climate change–related review data in its processes. Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesperson, said the commission continues to reasonably conclude that U.S. nuclear power plants will safely withstand or mitigate projected changes in natural hazards.

In response to the GAO report, the NRC said that the “layers of conservatism and defense-in-depth incorporated into the NRC’s processes provide reasonable assurance regarding any plausible natural hazard . . . including those that could result from climate change.”

Elsewhere: The U.K. Office for Nuclear Regulation last month announced it has selected five nuclear sites to inspect for potential climate change impacts.

Last year, the ONR asked site operators to complete a self-assessment questionnaire on their arrangements and resilience in relation to climate change effects. The agency plans to move forward to the inspection stage at five sites: Heysham-2, Sizewell B, Sellafield, Dounreay, and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (Aldermaston and Burghfield). The inspections will begin now and run through December.

Last month, the ONR hosted a meeting with the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), the Dutch Authority for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection (ANVS), and Belgium's Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) to discuss the implications of climate change on the nuclear sector.

The meeting provided opportunities to share learning and discuss how each regulator considers climate change when regulating their industries.

"Given the environmental similarities between the four nations, it is considered that there is significant benefit in sharing expectations and regulatory approaches, and comparing the maturity of the respective countries' preparedness to withstand the potential consequences of climate change," the ONR said. "Aligning with national and international guidance, standards and good practice is vital for the effective regulation of climate change at each stage of a nuclear site's lifecycle."

ONR's executive director of regulation, Donald Urquhart, said, "This was an important meeting with our counterparts in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands for progressive discussions about regulating effectively in the face of climate change and protecting the nuclear industry from its potentially adverse effects.” He continued, “Sharing experiences and growing our international networks to collaborate on this global issue is essential in preparing the nuclear industry for the effects of climate change."

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