Even as it reassures the British public that the country’s nuclear power plants are built to withstand a one-in-10,000-year event, the United Kingdom’s nuclear regulator is being warned that extreme weather events remain a dangerous threat to the industry.
Citing documents obtained under freedom of information laws, Vice News reports that the intense heat waves predicted for the UK as the climate crisis deepens are high on the list of concerns for the Meteorological and Coastal Flood Hazards Sub-Panel of the Expert Panel on Natural Hazards, which recently held its annual meeting with the Office for Nuclear Regulation.
“Specific words of caution were given to the builders of Hinkley Point C,” writes Vice. Presenters at the event warned the ONR that warming between now and 2085—the planned decommissioning date for the plant—presents “significant design implications” for the structure.
Also red-flagged by the experts: a potential repeat of historic weather events, such as the massive storm surge of January 30, 1607. That wave swept up the Bristol Channel, inundating more than 500 square kilometres of farmland to a depth of 7.74 metres and drowning more than 2,000 people.
And then there is the shadow cast by so-called “black swan events.” Vice notes that these weather occurrences are “ominously defined” as a “high-consequence event that has never been previously observed.” Think: the Fukushima tragedy, which was unprecedented and unthought-of—until it happened.
“The possibility of a black swan event that causes massive coastal flooding is a big deal to nuclear power stations, as they’re all on the coast to use seawater for cooling,” writes Vice.
An ONR spokesperson said the regulator “requires that nuclear new build sites are able to withstand extreme natural hazards, by designing against a 1 in 10,000 year event. Sites must identify these external hazards, which include the impact of climate change, and demonstrate that they are adequately protected against them throughout the lifetime of the facility.”
While “1 in 10,000 years” sounds rare, such a design standard may not ultimately mean much, given that “climate change is constantly moving the goal posts,” notes Vice.
Kate Crowley, lecturer in climate risk and resilience at Edinburgh University, sees the risk as present, but small. “Britain’s new nuclear power stations are designed to such a high bar in terms of what they can withstand, that the chance of them being compromised is vanishingly small,” she told Vice. But even so, the risk will never completely disappear.
“There is going to be residual risk where you might have your very, very extreme events, or where you have unknowns or where we take an emissions pathway that just catapults us into a really awful situation,” she said.