There is increasing concern, on the evidence of current energy policies in both developed and developing economies, that greenhouse gas emissions will not be reduced sufficiently fast to avoid the effects of climate change. Climate projections show in some regions the increased likelihood of intense heat waves accompanied by droughts, or violent storms, flooding, etc. Such effects could undermine the output of thermal power plants, and nuclear power plants (NPPs) in particular, which require large quantities of water for cooling. Safety or environmental considerations due to extreme weather conditions may also lead to throttling or shut down of power plants, at an economic cost to the owners. Events such as the heat waves that hit Europe in 2003 and 2006, and more recently the United States in 2012 have shown that nuclear power operation can indeed be affected by cooling water availability issues. Storms, such as the tropical storm Sandy that hit the East Coast of the United States in October 2012 can also be a matter for concern, as they can undermine the integrity of the transmission network or, through flooding and transport of debris, challenge the operation of the cooling systems. In either case, the operation of NPPs can also be affected by such extreme climatic events.
Events which today appear to be rare may become more frequent in the future. Given the expected lifetime of nuclear power plants – 60 years for new designs, it is clear that climate change considerations must be addressed at design, planning and licensing stages, and this will have an impact on the cost of nuclear electricity. Even for operating units, there may be the need to retrofit the plants to make them more resilient in the face of climate change. Closed cooling systems, more robust water intake systems, more efficient heat exchangers are examples of adaptation measures. These have a cost, which must be compared to the cost of inaction, i.e. the risk of forced outages due to extreme weather.
The Nuclear Energy Agency of OECD launched a two-year study (2013-14) on the assessment of the vulnerability of nuclear power plants and the cost of adapting to changes in the climate. The primary objectives of the study, to be carried out by a group of experts with secretarial support under the oversight of the Nuclear Development Committee (NDC), are to assess the impact of climate changes on the contribution of nuclear power to the security of energy supply, taking into account the impact on the demand side as well, to quantify the cost of inaction and the cost of adaptation.
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Last reviewed: 14 February 2017