With Seabrook Station as one of the most vulnerable nuclear plants in the nation, policymakers and nuclear plant operators need to take the risks of climate change very seriously.
In late April, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission held its annual safety meeting about Seabrook Station. Because evacuation planning was on the agenda, it was not surprising that the topic of Seabrook’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change was on people's minds.
Seabrook Station's construction began in 1976, and although the plant was built 20 feet above sea level and two miles inland, government projections show increasing risks for Seabrook and the surrounding coastal communities linked to rising waters.
Current data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows how predicted sea level rise will reduce the planned buffer between Seabrook Station and the Atlantic Ocean. According to Climate Central, between 2016 and 2040, the risk of a flood of five feet or more above the high tide line is 54% in the Seabrook Beach area. By 2060, there is a 100% chance of such an event in the area.
Similar risks were highlighted in the study “Underwater” released by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2018. Focusing on the impacts of sea level across the United States, their data tells a story of chronic flooding along the Eastern Seaboard. Area towns including Salisbury, Seabrook, Hampton and Newburyport will face frequent inundation as average sea levels rise, impacting critical infrastructure, and evacuation routes. As sea waters rise, so does the high tide line, and risks of floods beyond current infrastructural and managerial capacity. By 2100, flooding in the area may be a daily affair.
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the disaster at the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant in Japan awoke the world to the dangers of nuclear power by the ocean. Of course, most nuclear plants are designed to need vast amounts of water for cooling, thus they are sited by rivers and coastlines. In the U.S., the Fukushima disaster prompted the NRC to undertake a study which revealed that 54 out of 60 nuclear power plants were not prepared to handle the flood risk they faced.
When Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast U.S. in 2012, power plants in its path shut down as a preventative measure against water damage and power shortages which rocked Fukushima. In the superstorm’s aftermath, a Stanford University study surveyed the risks faced by coastal nuclear plants. The results revealed that Seabrook Station is among the nation’s most vulnerable.
How sea level threatens Seabrook
The increased exposure to high sea levels at Seabrook Station poses at least four risks:
1. Higher ground water levels surrounding the plant could exacerbate the problem of alkali-silica reaction (ASR) that is undermining the concrete in all key safety structures at the plant, including the core reactor dome and the spent fuel pool;
2. High tides from increasingly severe storm surges create a risk of acute flooding, the kind which led to the Fukushima power shortage, and subsequent nuclear meltdown;
3. Flooding in the event of such a storm could block low-lying evacuation routes that emergency planners depend upon in the event of a serious radiological release; and finally,
4. Once Seabrook Station enters its decommissioning phase, radioactive materials stored on site for “cooling” remain vulnerable and pose an ongoing risk to the surrounding ecosystem in a scenario of chronic flooding.
Given the previous acknowledgement by plant operator NextEra of the impending risks posed by climate change in the area in their 2015 Environmental Impact Statement, there are two points of concern: first, an apparent reluctance of NextEra to consider all of the environmental hazards which might impair its ability to operate a high risk facility safely, and second, lack of regulatory attention to the potential for contamination of wetlands, groundwater, ocean water, and other environmental and human risks posed by more frequent inundation awaiting the Seabrook area.
To address the potential threats posed by climate change, the NRC should require the types of measures recommended by NRC’s Near Term Task Force after the Fukushima accident, in order to ensure the safety of reactor communities, not weaken proposed regulations as the NRC commissioners did this January.
Policy leadership and citizen vigilance are needed.
In addition to the type of federal leadership lacking under the current administration, policymakers at the local and state level must take their own steps to ensure that infrastructure development as well as evacuation plans include assessments of climate change scenarios — especially of low-probability, high-impact events.
Federal regulations for nuclear plants need to catch up with the reality of climate change that is already upon us. In the absence of such vision and leadership, it falls to the vigilance of the citizens, and the work of state and local governments, to try to prepare and protect vulnerable communities and natural resources, as best they can.
Samantha McCraine, of Newburyport, is an independent climate and environment researcher, working with the World Wildlife Fund.