The next ‘Great Tide’

Exposed to rising tides and storm surges, Britain’s nuclear plants stand in harm’s way

By Andrew Blowers

It was now that wind and sea in concert leaped forward to their triumph.’
Hilda Grieve: The Great Tide: The Story of the 1953 Flood Disaster in Essex. County Council of Essex, 1959 

The Great Tide of 31 January/1 February 1953 swept down the east coast of England, carrying death and destruction in its wake. Communities were unaware and unprepared as disaster struck in the middle of the night, drowning over 300 in England, in poor and vulnerable communities such as Jaywick and Canvey Island on the exposed and low-lying Essex coast. 

Although nothing quite so devastating has occurred in the 67 years since, the 1953 floods remain a portent of what the effects of climate change may bring in the years to come. 

Since that largely unremembered disaster, flood defences, communications and emergency response systems have been put in place all along the east coast of England, although it will only be a matter of time before the sea reclaims some low-lying areas. 

West Mersea, the region close to where the proposed new Bradwell reactor would be located — on the south shore of the nearby Blackwater Estuary — is notoriously low-lying land. (Photo: “West mersea” by Arenamontanus is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Among the most prominent infrastructure on the East Anglian coast are the nuclear power stations at Sizewell in Suffolk and Bradwell in Essex, constructed and operated in the decades following the Great Tide. 

Sizewell A (capacity 0.25 gigawatts), one of the early Magnox stations, operated for over 40 years, from 1966 to 2006. Sizewell B (capacity 1.25 gigawatts), the only operating pressurised water reactor in the UK, was commissioned in 1995 and is currently expected to continue operating until 2055. 

Further down the coast, Bradwell (0.25 gigawatts) was one of the first (Magnox) nuclear stations in the UK and operated for 40 years from 1962 to 2002, becoming, in 2018, the first to be decommissioned and enter into ‘care and maintenance’. 

These and other nuclear stations around our coast were conceived and constructed long before climate change became a political issue. And yet the Magnox stations with their radioactive graphite cores and intermediate-level waste stores will remain on site until at least the end of the century. 

Meanwhile, Sizewell B, with its highly radioactive spent fuel store, will extend well into the next. Inevitably, then, the legacy of nuclear power will be exposed on coasts highly vulnerable to the increasing sea levels and the storm surges, coastal erosion and flooding that accelerating global warming portends. 

Managing this legacy will be difficult enough. Yet it is proposed to compound the problem by building two gargantuan new power stations on these sites, Sizewell C (capacity 3.3 gigawatts) and Bradwell B (2.3 gigawatts) to provide the low-carbon, ‘firm’ (i.e. consistent-supply) component of the energy mix seen as necessary to ‘keep the lights on’ and help save the planet from global warming. 

Sizewell B, with its highly radioactive irradiated fuel store, sits precariously on the Suffolk shoreline. The waste will be there well into the next century. (Photo: “Sizewell Nuclear Power Station” by Alan Stanton is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

But these stations will be operating until late in the century, and their wastes, including spent fuel, will have to be managed on site for decades after shutdown. It is impossible to foresee how any form of managed adaptation can be credibly sustained during the next century when conditions at these sites are unknowable. 

New nuclear power is presented as an integral part of the solution to climate change. But the ‘nuclear renaissance’ is faltering on several fronts. It is unable to secure the investment, unable to achieve timely deployment, unable to compete with much cheaper renewables, and unable to allay concerns about security risks, accidents, health impacts, environmental damage, and the long-term management of its dangerous wastes. 

It is these issues that will be played out in the real-world context of climate change. There is an exquisite paradox here. While nuclear power is hubristically presented as the ‘solution’ to climate change, the changing climate becomes its nemesis on the low-lying shores of eastern England. 

A diminishing prospect 

So far, the nuclear industry has been unable, even with increasing UK government support, to deliver anything close to the ambitions of the ‘nuclear renaissance’. The government originally set out with the aim that ‘new nuclear power should be free to contribute as much as possible towards meeting the need for 25 GW of new non-renewable capacity’ and, in 2011, eight sites were designated for new reactors to be developed by private investors. But, as the costs have risen, and the competition from alternatives has intensified, nuclear has obligingly fallen on its sword. 

Two of the eight sites, Hartlepool and Heysham, have not attracted any investor interest. Of the rest, Moorside, the site neighbouring Sellafield, intended for three reactors with 3.3 gigawatts capacity, was abandoned by its Japanese investor, Toshiba, in 2018. 

Wylfa Newydd on Anglesey has also, for the time being at least, fallen out of the reckoning as its developer, Hitachi, suspended work on the project in early 2019, at the point at which it was awaiting the outcome of its application for development. This effectively took out any chance of development at the proposed Oldbury station on the Severn Estuary, which was an integral part of Hitachi’s plans for new nuclear power in the UK. While these projects are not necessarily dead, their imminent revival would seem unlikely at a time when the financial fortunes of nuclear power are at a low ebb. 

A fancy information center couldn’t save the NuGen Moorside nuclear project, which Toshiba abandoned. (“NuGen CEO Tom Samson welcomes Andrea Leadsom to the Moorside Information Centre” by DECCgovuk/Creative Commons)  

Apart from Hinkley Point C, which will probably struggle on through a combination of political inertia and a nuclear ideology increasingly remote from economic reality, there remain two projects – Sizewell C and Bradwell B – still in the frame, although precariously so. For both sites, climate change may prove the showstopper. These coastal, low-lying sites are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, flooding, storm surges, and coastal processes. 

This was recognised as an issue in the rather equivocal statement that accompanied designation of the sites in 2011. Referring to Bradwell (similarly to Sizewell), it was considered ‘reasonable to conclude that any likely power station development within the site could potentially be protected against flood risk throughout its lifetime, including the potential effects of climate change, storm surge and tsunami, taking into account possible countermeasures’. 

By 2017, when the siting criteria were being revised, the onus was more firmly placed on the developer to ‘confirm that they can protect the site against flood-risk throughout the lifetime of the site, including the  potential effects of climate change’. 

Lifetime protection was envisaged as a process of ‘managed adaptation’, requiring developers ‘to demonstrate that they could achieve further measures for flood management at the site in the future, if future climate change predictions show they are necessary’. 

There are two problems with managed adaptation. The first is the increasing uncertainty of predictions of climate change and related sea level rise, and especially storm surges which greatly increase the impact, by the end of this century. If present trends continue, global warming could reach 3oC-4oC by the end of the century and, even if it can be reduced to 2oC based on the Paris accords of 2015 or, better still the 1.5oC urged by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) (now looking increasingly unlikely), sea level rise of around 1 metre will occur, and rising seas are inevitable beyond 2100. 

At that kind of level managed adaptation might still be credible. But managed adaptation must take a precautionary approach to design and factor in ‘credible maximum scenarios’ which are difficult to establish with credibility given the large uncertainties of climate change impacts. 

The second problem is that sea level rise and climate impacts will continue into the next century even if counter-measures to hold global warming succeed. It becomes increasingly difficult to rely on extrapolation, assuming past trends will continue into the future. Trends do not continue indefinitely, either because of counter-action (to reduce global warming) or because unpredictable and sometimes unforeseeable events or changing circumstances occur. Even with ocean temperatures held constant from 2020, the loss of a substantial portion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may already be inevitable. 

The salt marsh is already eroding at the precious Dengie National Nature Reserve, which would be under threat by nuclear construction at Bradwell. (“Eroding saltmarsh at Dengie” by naturalengland is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

About a quarter of the world’s nuclear power stations are on coasts or estuaries. The sites on the east coast and Severn Estuary are especially vulnerable to flooding, tidal surges, and storms. Potential impacts include loss of cooling and problems of access and emergency response in the event of a major incident and inundation of the plant, including spent fuel storage facilities.

In areas like the east coast of England, natural protection from saltmarshes, mudflats, shingle beaches, sand dunes and sea cliffs has been rapidly declining. Recent projections indicate substantial parts of the coast below annual flood level in 2100 and a loss of between a quarter and a half of the UK’s sandy beaches, leading to extensive inland flooding. The problems of managing such coasts through adaptive measures such as managed realignment and hard defenses may be insuperable in the uncertain circumstances of climate change over the next century. It seems imprudent and irresponsible to contemplate development of new nuclear power stations in conditions which may become intolerable. 

Climate predictions have focused especially on the period up to the end of the century, by which time planned new nuclear power stations starting up in the 2030s will only just have ceased operating. At the turn of the next century the legacy of today’s new build will become the decommissioning wastes of tomorrow, adding to that already piled up in coastal locations. 

It is conceivable, but not certain, that sea defences will prove technically resilient. But it is not just an engineering issue: managed adaptation depends on institutional continuity and a society with the interest, resources and skills to maintain continuing commitment to nuclear energy and the management of its legacy over the very long term. By the end of the century nuclear energy could be a redundant technology, requiring continued surveillance by a society already struggling to cope with the impacts of climate change. 

Beyond 2100 sea levels continue rising and the radioactive legacy of new nuclear power stations will remain at the sites, in reactor cores and in spent fuel and waste stores exposed to the destructive processes of climate change. It is predicted that decommissioning and clean-up of new build sites will last for most of the next century. 

The logistics, let alone the cost of transplanting, decommissioning and decontaminating the redundant plant and wastes to an inland site, if one could be found, would be well beyond the range of managed adaptation. The government’s claim that it ‘is satisfied that effective arrangements will exist to manage and dispose of the wastes that will be produced from new nuclear power stations’ is an aspiration, and by no means a certainty.

Nuclear energy has been in retreat in the face of issues of cost, technology, safety, security, and environmental impact. Increasingly it has come to rely on two arguments. The first is that there is a need for ‘firm’ power in the energy mix which only nuclear can supply. As alternatives become more flexible and cheaper, any need for new nuclear will diminish, and, in any case, there is already substantial nuclear capacity for the short term in the existing fleet. 

The other claim for new nuclear is even more specious: that it is a necessary low-carbon investment to combat climate change. In fact, nuclear power is cumbersome, inflexible and will displace or restrain alternative renewable technologies with lower costs and a smaller carbon footprint. 

Nuclear energy is portrayed as a moral imperative in the face of climate change. On the contrary, nuclear energy raises moral issues about security and potential destruction and danger to the environment and public health in nuclear communities down the generations. The moral question becomes all the more acute in the very specific circumstances of developing unsustainable nuclear power stations on the crumbling shores of East Anglia and the West Country. 

In Hilda Grieve’s perspicacious words: 

‘But the sea will not be tamed. From time to time, urged on by its only master, the wind, to break the order of its course, it will rise again to strike the land.’ 

Andrew Blowers OBE is Emeritus Professor of Social Sciences at The Open University, Co-Chair of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy/NGO Nuclear Forum, and the author of The Legacy of Nuclear Power (Routledge, 2017). The views expressed are personal. 

This article appeared in the September/October 2020 edition of Town & Country Planning and is republished with kind permission of the author and editors.

Headline photo: “West Mersea at sunset” by say_cheddar is licensed underCC BY 2.0

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