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.”
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.”
April 11, 2011. Click headline to read more. See also: Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant Shut Down. Look, the US is demonstrably under-prepared for current climate conditions. MSM has to pick up these climate-related shut downs. And politicians have to stop messing around with people’s lives and get on the alt-energy bandwagon.
Update: @butterforce: Yes, it is an extremely bad thing. A shut down for more than a few hours can lead to catastrophic meltdown. Nuclear power plants need constant cooling, 24/7/365. The above shut down is a safety and infrastructure problem - diesel back-up generators are a short term fix. Brown’s Ferry took weeks to recover, and, luckily, there wasn’t another set of storms during that recovery time, nor was this recovery paralleled with yet another regional drought. I get where you’re coming from, and I wish these plants worked that way, with on/off switches. But, they don’t. Hope this helps!
Source: Al’s Blog