GAO recommends NRC consider the potential risks posed by climate change to nuclear plants

Published on April 15, 2024 by Chris Galford

© Shutterstock

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently advised the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to plan for climate change risks so it can address any gaps identified in its processes. 

The recommendations followed a review of the climate resilience of energy infrastructure, which focused on figuring out how climate change could impact nuclear power plants and what the NRC is doing to address those risks. For this, GAO used federal data, reviewed regulations, agency documents, and relevant literature, and spoke with federal officials and stakeholders. 

GAO concluded that climate change is likely to exacerbate natural hazards, which could in term damage systems and equipment that guarantee safe operations at nuclear plants nationwide. While the NRC conducts its own oversight process for these facilities – largely based on historical data – that process does not currently consider potential increases in risk from climate change. 

Notably, most commercial nuclear power plants in the United States were also built in the 1960s and 1970s. 

While GAO noted that interviewed NRC officials insisted the current processes should provide an adequate margin of safety to address climate risks, they did not actually conduct any assessments to demonstrate this. By contrast, assessing its processes could help guarantee the NRC fully considers the risks to existing and proposed plants and would help the NRC adopt a more comprehensive approach to assessing risks and protecting public health and safety. 

In all, GAO made three recommendations following its assessment:

  1. The NRC should assess whether its licensing and oversight processes adequately address the potential for increased risks from climate change.
  2. The NRC should develop, finalize, and implement plans to address gaps in processes identified by the aforementioned assessments.
  3. The NRC should develop and finalize guidance to incorporate climate projection data into relevant processes. 

For its part, the NRC stated that the recommendations were consistent with actions it was already taking or are under development.