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:
"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.”
The Associated Press Posted on Fri, Apr. 27, 2012 10:52 AM
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — An overwhelming number of jellyfish-like creatures clogging seawater intake screens forced operators on Thursday to shut down the Unit 2 reactor at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, Pacific Gas & Electric officials said.
"If the $16 billion facility is built, it would generate 3,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 3 million households.
It also would be a further drain on the Green River, one of the most robust tributaries of the shrinking Colorado River, which serves 30 million people and Mexico along with irrigating 3.5 million acres of cropland. The river that once flowed freely 1,450 miles from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and into the Gulf of California has been used so ruthlessly that it now slows to a dribble 50 miles short of the sea.
The plant would consume about 53,000 acre feet of water annually to cool its reactors and generate steam to power its turbines. That’s enough to supply 200,000 people—roughly the population of Little Rock, Ark., or Tacoma, Wash.—for a year.
Blue Castle’s proposal reignited a long-standing debate over how much more water can be drained from the Colorado River system before the river can no longer sustain the cities, farms and industries that have grown up around it. The Colorado’s water has been divvied up, wrangled and fought over for more than a century, resulting in a tangled web of water rights that allots specific amounts of water to seven western states and hundreds of local water districts.”
Nice little article that ends with what I dream every environmental writer would do, answer the question: “What do we do now?”…
TVA piles sand bags on top of dams to try to prevent flooding. Nuclear Regulatory Commission balks at shoddy, temporary fix with high stakes nuclear power plants. The first climate-related nuclear power plant shut down occurred very recently, only in 2007(!). Since then, there have been, by my count, five more climate related nuclear power plant shut downs in the US.
These shut downs occurred for two reasons, drought and floods. Nuclear power plants depend on a large water source to cool the reactors down. When the water source, usually a lake or big river, runs too low and too hot, the power plant has to shut down. Same precaution occurs when there is a flood - the plants have to shut down for safety purposes.
These climate issues were not anticipated in the original designs of the plants. Now the plants are vulnerable to climate impacts, threatening human health and the environment with a serious radiation disaster. See my previous posts on nuclear plant shut downs in the U.S. here, here, and here.
The TVA manages several nuclear power plants in the southeast U.S. They’ve begun to try to control droughts and flooding with what seems to be a patch work or short-term fixes, such as sand bags. The Tennessean newspaper reports:
“Sand baskets that the Tennessee Valley Authority installed at dams to protect its nuclear plants from a worst-case flood could fail, according to a federal nuclear oversight group.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the baskets are not capable of standing up to the impact of debris barreling down the Tennessee River in a massive flood.
"There is potential for this debris to damage the baskets or push the individual baskets apart, causing a breach," an NRC letter dated Wednesday to TVA says. "There would be no time to repair the baskets because the flood would already be in progress."
Still, the baskets are considered adequate for the short term.
The sand-filled, wire mesh baskets were placed around Cherokee, Fort Loudon, Tellico and Watts Bar dams and earthen embankments to raise them a few feet after it was determined.”
This may be the most important advancement in climate adaptation in U.S. history. Military bases, power plants, turtle nesting grounds, etc., are being affected by rising seas. Whenever there is a new project that will affect these areas, developers have to ensure that the environment is not significantly harmed (this is why the right hates the EPA).
They have to file what’s called an Environmental Impact Statement, aka an EIS. Want to build a new road? File an EIS to show the public if any animal habitat will be disturbed or if human health will be impacted from pollution. Want to build an oil pipeline from Alberta Canada to Texas? File an EIS and post it online for the public to review it.
Build a new high-speed train? File an EIS. Dump mercury pollution into the Great Lakes? EIS. New coal mine? EIS. Fix an old bridge? EIS. Cut down a forest? EIS. There are federal EISs and state EISs (and sometimes there are local EISs, which makes the process to build something very expensive, but they’re all relatively good for the environment.)
The Federal Highway Administration builds and maintains our nation’s highway system. It has to file boat loads of EISs every year. It characterizes an EIS as a federal regulation required by the National Environmental Protection Act, which was signed by Nixon around 1970:
NEPA requires Federal agencies to prepare environmental impact statements (EISs) for major Federal actions that significantly affect the quality of the human environment. An EIS is a full disclosure document that details the process through which a transportation project was developed, includes consideration of a range of reasonable alternatives, analyzes the potential impacts resulting from the alternatives, and demonstrates compliance with other applicable environmental laws and executive orders. The EIS process in completed in the following ordered steps: Notice of Intent (NOI), draft EIS, final EIS, and record of decision (ROD).
The NOI is published in the Federal Register by the lead Federal agency and signals the initiation of the process. Scoping, an open process involving the public and other Federal, state and local, agencies, commences immediately to identify the major and important issues for consideration during the study. Public involvement and agency coordination continues throughout the entire process. The draft EIS provides a detailed description of the proposal, the purpose and need, reasonable alternatives, the affected environment, and presents analysis of the anticipated beneficial and adverse environmental effects of the alternatives. Following a formal comment period and receipt of comments from the public and other agencies, the FEIS will be developed and issued. The FEIS will address the comments on the draft and identify, based on analysis and comments, the “preferred alternative”. Read more here.
Writing for Columbia Law School’s Climate Law Blog, sharp student Patrick Woolsey found that the U.S. Military and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are at the forefront of filing EISs that include sea level rise impacts from climate change. In a recent post, Woolsey wrote:
The U.S. military addresses sea level rise in its EISs for coastal bases and installations with particular urgency. In a 2010 EIS, the Navy analyzes the effects of SLR on the expansion of a naval base on the island of Guam and the construction of a deepwater docking facility for aircraft carriers. The Guam EIS recognizes the island’s extreme vulnerability to climate change and SLR. The EIS also discusses SLR in the context of broader security concerns, noting that “in 2008, the National Intelligence Council judged that more than 30 U.S. military installations were already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels.”
It’s not just the military who is concerned with rising seas - the Nuclear Regulatory Commission filed EISs for new reactors on the coasts; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration filed EISs for fishery management, coral reefs, and sea turtle habitat; and the Navy is concerned with expanding an island military base in Guam.
EISs are made up of many parts, but the do not have to include sea-level rise. And they certainly do not require developers to include climate change impacts! Politically, climate change is a toxic issue. But, the agencies are showing that they do have the individual power and mandate under the NEPA to manage environmental impacts regardless of the source.
I have no doubt this turn towards adapting projects for climate impacts will hit the Supreme Court within the next few years.
Apparently the only way Republicans know how to create jobs is to help their friends drill their big rods into sacred holes. Immoral “alternative lifestyle” indeed…