The Promise and Peril of Nuclear Energy in a Climate Changed World

In 2023, countries around the world—including countries with nuclear power infrastructure such as Brazil, the United States, China, India, Pakistan, and Sweden—faced historic flooding events.

Obviously, nuclear power plants are often built near rivers and coasts due to their need for water. The majority of plants currently in service were built well before the concept of climate resilience was widely adopted, and many are built just above sea level. Coastal areas are doubly at risk to climate change-driven flooding hazards due to the combination of storm surge and sea level rise. Such dynamics threaten existing nuclear power facilities, including in the United States. A 2020 Moody’s analytic report found that climate change-induced rain storms and flooding at plants along the East and Gulf Coast may “inundate” the facilities and “damage transmission lines or substations, hindering a plant’s ability to deliver power.” Already in 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused the shutdown of three nuclear plants in New York and New Jersey due to high water levels and the storm’s impact on the electrical grid.

A 2019 study from the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) examined Egypt’s plans for the El Dabaa nuclear plant, slated for construction near Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea. The site was first selected in 1980 for a nuclear plant, yet due to halting, uneven progress in regulation, planning, funding, and execution, initial construction was begun only in 2021. The CSR report found:

“[Egypt’s] Coastal zones are already experiencing an increase in the frequency and intensity of storm surges (in some cases up to 3 feet above sea level). Flash flooding will become more common as will severe events. As Egypt stated in its Nationally Determined Contribution, ‘sea level rise threatens the electric power plants and networks located along the coasts.’ This is likely to apply to the El Dabaa site and any future nuclear reactor sites planned for coastal areas.”