In this must read piece (one that defines my career and the core theme of this tumblr), the New York Times contextualizes the issue of climate impacts on America’s aging infrastructure in this solid piece, “Rise in Weather Extremes Threatens Infrastructure.”
I’ve written about about weather-related nuclear power plant shut downs before (see here). When a power plant shuts down in the middle of a summer heat wave and drought, people’s lives are threatened, especially the elderly and children if they lose air-conditioning or power to essential products.
Nuke plants suck water from either a river or a lake. And the water is used to cool the reactors (those big, wide towers you see with “smoke” billowing out is actually steam). After the water circulates through the plant, it’s dumped back into the river or lake (this impacts fish and wildlife, because the water is very hot, killing or making ecosystem uninhabitable).
The water has to be below a certain temperature range in order for it to effectively cool the towers. But, what happens if the river water is too hot? The plant has to shut down.
Up until 2007, this has never happened in the United States before. But now it’s a regular occurrence. Rivers and lakes are heating up. Nuclear power plants in France shut down during a dangerous heat wave that killed 10s of thousands(!) of people in the early 2000s. Now, the US is experiencing a similar situation. Browns Ferry nuclear power plant shut down several times since 2007 because the lake it uses for cooling became too shallow and too hot. The result? No power (and therefore no air-conditioning) for nearly millions of people during the hottest and most dangerous summers in the south.
The Times does a way better job than I ever could covering the many issues of climate impacts on America’s aging and weakening infrastructure. As an climate adaptation professional, the list of problems is what I specialize in. Have a look:
Weather Extremes Leave Parts of U.S. Grid Buckling
"From highways in Texas to nuclear power plants in Illinois, the concrete, steel and sophisticated engineering that undergird the nation’s infrastructure are being taxed to worrisome degrees by heat, drought and vicious storms.
…a US Airways regional jet became stuck in asphalt that had softened in 100-degree temperatures, and a subway train derailed after the heat stretched the track so far that it kinked — inserting a sharp angle into a stretch that was supposed to be straight. In East Texas, heat and drought have had a startling effect on the clay-rich soils under highways, which “just shrink like crazy,” leading to “horrendous cracking,” said Tom Scullion, senior research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. In Northeastern and Midwestern states, he said, unusually high heat is causing highway sections to expand beyond their design limits, press against each other and “pop up,” creating jarring and even hazardous speed bumps.
Excessive warmth and dryness are threatening other parts of the grid as well. In the Chicago area, a twin-unit nuclear plant had to get special permission to keep operating this month because the pond it uses for cooling water rose to 102 degrees; its license to operate allows it to go only to 100. According to the Midwest Independent System Operator, the grid operator for the region, a different power plant had had to shut because the body of water from which it draws its cooling water had dropped so low that the intake pipe became high and dry; another had to cut back generation because cooling water was too warm.”