Nuclear power and disappearing coastlines

Jenny Jones
Nuclear power stations and radioactive waste stores on the UK coast face high risk of flooding by the end of the century.


The world renowned Cambridge scientist, Professor Wadham, has warned that 300 cubic kilometres of ice was lost from the Greenland sheet last year. The sheet is "decaying quite rapidly." 

Local feedback mechanisms could be accelerating the breakup of the glaciers and recent measurements show that the rate of decline is speeding up beyond any of the projections contained in IPCC reports.

Britain’s nuclear power stations are sited on our coast and, once built, new ones could like Sizewell B could be producing electricity for sixty years. Hinkley Point is due to be built by around 2026 and there is a queue of others waiting to get the go ahead. That takes us right into the era of considerable sea level rises.

High risk

An assessment published by the government last year included a projected sea level rise of up to 1.15m in the London area by 2100.

Some of the UK’s existing nuclear power stations are already under pressure from erosion, with constant dredging to maintain the existing coastline.

In 2012, nine of the sites were assessed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) as being vulnerable now, while others are in danger from rising sea levels and storms in the future.

The sites include proposed new nuclear power stations around the coast, as well as numerous radioactive waste stores, operating reactors and defunct nuclear facilities. According to Defra, Hinkley Point already has a low risk of flooding, and by the 2080s will face a high risk of both flooding and erosion.

David Crichton, a flood specialist and honorary professor at the hazard research centre at University College London, noted: “Sea level rise, especially in the south-east of England, will mean some of these sites will be under water within 100 years. This will make decommissioning expensive and difficult, not to mention the recovery and movement of nuclear waste to higher ground.”


This assessment was based upon 2009 figures, but projections have got worse since then. The 2018 Factsheet endorsed by Defra notes that: “The UKCP18 sea level projections are consistently larger than in the previous set of UK climate projections, UKCP09 (see Lowe et al, 2009), for similar emissions scenarios.”

This is important because the Office Nuclear Regulation response to climate change in March of this year notes that their plans are still based upon the 2009 projections and they don’t expect this to change until later this year at the earliest.

While the ‘wild-card’ of localised feedback loops could see ice melt accelerate in Greenland, it is possible that the IPCC have under-estimated positive changes such as the rapid growth of solar power in recent years.

Defra include a lower set of projections based upon more mitigation and I desperately hope that this optimistic view turns into a political reality as we end our addiction to oil quickly. However, they make clear that climate change is happening now: “UK tide gauge records show substantial year-to-year changes in coastal water levels (typically several centimetres).

“The amount of sea level rise depends on the location around the UK and increases with higher emissions scenarios.” So I will be asking a series of questions to establish how this new projection impacts on individual nuclear power station sites.

Worth the risk?

The factsheet’s final sting in the tail is that: “Based on exploratory results to 2300, sea levels continue to increase beyond 2100 even with large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

This is a big warning that planning to build new nukes on the coast shouldn’t be based upon the 2100 estimates, as these will be exceeded. The projections beyond 2100 clearly become less as reliable the further they get into the future but as the factsheet says: “Global sea level has risen over the twentieth century and will continue to rise over the coming centuries.”

I accept that the melt of the entire Greenland ice-sheet with a 7m rise in sea levels seems far off, but as oceans warm they also expand slightly.

What happens to these new nuclear power sites with a 2-3m rise in sea levels? Nuclear energy is a very expensive and redundant technology; is it worth the risk?

This Author

Jenny Jones has held several prominent political roles: Deputy Mayor of London, Deputy Chair of the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee, Green Councillor for Southwark Council and Chair of the Green Party of England and Wales. Jenny was introduced to the House of Lords in November 2013, she took her title, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, from the council estate she grew up on in Brighton. She is the Green Party’s sole representative in the House of Lords.

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