Report: Climate Change Threatens Nuclear Plants

Dec 15, 2017

A new report by Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions Education Fund says climate change poses new threats to the security of Plant Vogtle, the Savannah River Site and nuclear facilities around the Southeast.

Georgia WAND Executive Director Becky Rafter joined Rickey Bevington in the studio to discuss the group’s new findings.

Becky Rafter: Vogtle is a nuclear power station located in Burke County which is in east Georgia just below Augusta. It borders the Savannah River and shares 17 miles of the Savannah River with the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons plant which is in South Carolina.

Rickey Bevington: We've got two major nuclear facilities right on the South Carolina Georgia border.

Rafter: Correct. And they really work in a larger system. The nuclear weapons plant creates tritium for our nuclear weapons arsenal. Tritium is the element that gives an atomic bomb its yield. It makes the fusion happen which is the mushroom cloud. Tritium has a short half life so it is costly to be extracted and reproduced in order to go into the warheads. There is also an environmental mission at Savannah River site which is taking care of the legacy waste from the huge buildup during the Cold War.

A worker at Plant Vogtle in November 2017
Credit Georgia Power

Bevington: Natural disasters have always been a threat to nuclear power plants and processing facilities. The most famous recent example is the tsunami and earthquake that destroyed Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant. That was 2011. So now in 2017 what new environmental factors threaten Plant Vogtle?

Rafter: Some new environmental factors are rising tides, rising sea levels, the temperatures warming, the temperature of water warming but also increasing droughts. A lot of these things lead to storm surges. When we have more storm surges and more flooding and more drought we have increased instances of going off the grid the power grid when the grid goes down and power is lost. A nuclear reactor depends on a backup generator backup generators were found to only be 80 percent reliable in a study that was done by Nuclear Information Resource Service which is a co-author of this report. There have been instances where the generators have failed altogether. When you mentioned the Fukushima Daiichi plant it was actually a power outage that caused the meltdown because there weren't backup generators were working and there was no power to cool the reactors.

A bird's eye view of Plant Voglte in October 2017
Credit Georgia Power

Bevington: So why is the South more susceptible to these major weather events?

Rafter: Most of it is geography and proximity to warmer waters. We’re having an increased number of major storms in the area. Three out of the five biggest storms have hit the Southeast in the past few years. We have the highest level of billion-dollar damage between Hurricane Andrew Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Katrina. The big story here is that the Southeast -- the southern states in general -- are the hub of the U.S. nuclear machine. We have not only nuclear reactors we have the only new nuclear reactors under construction. We have full fuel fabrication facilities, waste storage nuclear weapons plants, nuclear weapons labs and a very high number of nuclear reactors. We have a crisis of increased incidents of severe weather and an increased amount of nuclear activity. And what that looks like is that it affects people. There are other issues that are related to people to rate payers to consumers that are not just economic. They're much wider.