Nuclear power plants are heating up because of global warming

Employees at nuclear power plants in several countries report reduced performance in their cooling systems, raising safety concerns for those who work at them, as well as nearby communities – and this is blamed on global warming.

Nuclear power plants are typically built near high-volume rivers or other major bodies of water , as they use water-dependent systems to cool reactors, producing clean , sustainable energy.


Nuclear power plants like the one in Fukushima, Japan, are subject to damage from global warming because they depend on large bodies of water to cool.
Nuclear power plants like the one in Fukushima, Japan, are subject to damage from global warming because they rely on large bodies of water for cooling (Image: Santiherllor/Shutterstock)

In recent weeks, however, things have gotten complicated: thanks to the intense heat wave that hit Europe recently, combined with the low water levels that came with the drought in the region, waterway systems like the Rhône River in the Swiss Alps , saw their waters get too hot, making it difficult to reduce the temperature in reactors like those in France – the river in question produces a quarter of the country’s nuclear energy. So hot, in fact, that the marine life in the river itself is slowly dying out.

As a result, the state-owned company that controls France’s energy supply – Électricité de France (EDF) – has begun shutting down some reactors cooled by the Rhône and another river, the Garonne, effectively reducing the country’s nuclear energy capacity by at least 50%. . Similar situations occurred in 2018 and 2019.

Of all the energy matrices available to combat global warming , nuclear is considered the most “manageable”, given that it brings greater reliability than others, which depend much more on the climate: wind energy , for example, has difficulties in dry regions or low wind seasons.

However, nuclear power plants have their own problems with the climate: despite all the stigma caused by past occurrences (hello, Chernobyl ), it is one of the safest and most efficient ways to produce energy – if you can afford the skyrocketing costs and the immense structures that are minimally necessary for this.

Worse still, rivers with lower volume or with warmer waters are not the only problem. Nuclear power plants built in coastal regions, for example, still have to face rising sea levels and a greater occurrence of storms – which increases the risk of flooding in the structure, in addition to the proliferation of algae or jellyfish in the pipeline, leading to severe clogs.

In other words: if you have little water, it’s a problem. If you have a lot of water, that’s a problem too.

There is also the issue of longevity: most nuclear power plants were built between the 1950s and 1970s, without considering global warming as a controlling factor. According to Natalie Kopytko, a researcher at the University of Leeds, almost no current power plant considered climate change in its construction, betting that the weather patterns of the time would be maintained for decades. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

Fortunately, changes are underway in this regard: after the disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan, world authorities began to design new security codes that include climate change in their actions. In a technical report, US experts identified dozens of plants at risk of flooding and flooding. Upgrade plans, however, stalled as senators and the Republican presidential administration from 2016 and beyond claimed too high costs.

The subject always comes and goes in technical circles, and everything points to this debate being revived again in discussions not only in the scientific area, but also in the geopolitical environment: in recent years, presidents and other heads of state and their respective ministries have considered extending the useful life of existing plants – some in 20 or 30 years – in order to avoid the use of matrices that are more harmful to nature, such as the burning of coal or oil.

This is all in order to count on nuclear plants to contain the advance of global warming, which is greatly leveraged by the use of fossil fuels that harm the atmosphere.

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