The nuclear tragedy currently unfolding in Japan started decades ago on a piece of paper. Before any infrastructure project that size is approved, a risk assessment needs to be done. Hazards are identified and a cost/benefit analysis is made about how to approach those risks.
If constructing in a seismic zone that hasn’t seen an earthquake above a magnitude of M6.5 in 100 years, do you build to withstand a magnitude of 7? Or put in extra the millions upfront to protect against a magnitude of 8 that may never come? Or do you simply choose not to build a nuclear power station in an earthquake zone at all?
Every critical energy installation (and much of all infrastructure) is built on the basis of such risk assessments. In the case of the energy sector, getting it right is crucial not only for the ability to generate power, but also for site integrity. However, there are increasingly problems, both physical and economic, with way the risk assessments are done.
Risks Caused By a Changing Environment
First, due to changing environmental conditions (sea level rise, subsidence, changing storm activity, etc.), historical records may no longer be reliable predictors for future risks.
For example, the summer of 2003 was unusually hot. Many of the French nuclear power stations are cooled by river water but, in 2003, the rivers were running so warm, they couldn’t be used to cool as normal. That caused the powering down or shutting off of 17 French nuclear reactors. It cost the French utilities hundreds of millions of dollars to buy power form neighboring countries.
This ‘anomaly’ happened again in the summers of 2006 and 2009, again causing powering downs at French nuclear facilities.
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