Power plants at risk from extreme weather as planet warms

Meteorological report raises fears of dry reservoirs and flooded nuclear power stations

The Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, scene of a disaster in 2011 caused by the failure of cooling systems during an earthquake. AP
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A clean power grid is a weapon against global warming but could also be a victim of it, a report has claimed.

Extreme weather could dry up reservoirs, freeze power lines and overheat nuclear power plants, the World Meteorological Organisation has warned.

It said the threat to energy security from climate change had gone unnoticed compared to other effects of global warming.

The 52-page report said:

· Coastal power plants could come under threat from rising sea levels

· More than a quarter of hydroelectric dams are in river basins prone to drought

· One in three power plants that rely on freshwater for cooling are in areas of water stress

International Energy Agency chief Fatih Birol said: “We urgently need to respond to the growing impact of climate change on energy systems if we are to maintain energy security while accelerating the transition to net zero.

“This requires long-term planning and bold policy action to spur investment, which in turn needs to be underpinned by comprehensive and reliable weather and climate data.”

The WMO’s report said energy security was already at risk from the weather, at a time of turmoil for gas and electricity markets.

Recent alarm bells included a heatwave in Buenos Aires that knocked out power for thousands of homes in January, and frozen rain that disabled power lines in Russia in November 2020.

Sea levels are expected to rise regardless of whether greenhouse gas emissions are brought under control, leaving low-lying areas vulnerable.

More than 70 nuclear power plants are located near the sea, the International Atomic Energy Agency said.

In addition, the proportion of nuclear reactors in areas of water stress is expected to rise from 15 to 25 per cent in the next two decades.

Despite these challenges, building new clean power capacity is indispensable, the report said. It called for doubling the global supply of low-carbon electricity in the next eight years.

In all, 87 per cent of electricity generation provided by nuclear, thermal and hydroelectric systems is directly reliant on water availability.

Most nuclear power plants are cooled by water. The failure of cooling systems during an earthquake was the cause of the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

Scientists expect drought to become more common as the planet warms, especially if the target of limiting the temperature rise to 1.5ºC is missed.

Low water levels at the Hoover Dam in the western United States. AFP

Drought could become twice as likely even with a 1.5ºC increase, or 2.4 times more likely if the temperature rises by 2ºC, a landmark report last year said.

That report gave a push to global efforts to decarbonise and the energy crisis in Europe has generated fresh momentum behind renewable expansion in the continent.

However, recognition of the risks to the energy sector “remains extremely low compared with other climate-sensitive sectors”, the WMO report said.

It praised some examples where precautions were taken, including in Tajikistan where hydropower plants received early warnings of dry conditions.

“There are huge opportunities to go further and faster, investing in climate services to scale up our resilience to climate change, increase clean energy generation and safeguard a sustainable future,” said WMO chief Petteri Taalas.

“Time is not on our side and our climate is changing before our eyes. Sustainable energy security and reaching net zero by 2050 will mean a complete transformation of the global energy system.”

Updated: October 11, 2022, 12:34 PM