According to a new report issued by the United Nations on Nov. 23rd, the U.S. is the most impacted country by weather-related disasters. The report, titled “The Human Cost of Weather Related Disasters,” has been issued just before the Paris Climate Conference on Nov. 30th where representatives from 196 countries will discuss and negotiate a plan to combat global warming.
Global warming occurs due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide (CO2). Climate change is largely caused by global warming. Climate change is the significant change in earth’s overall conditions, which can be measured by major changes in weather patterns such as temperature, storm severity, precipitation, or other weather events over time. Paris Climate Conference attendees seek to fix the root of the problem – excess CO2 emissions.
The U.N. report shows that 90% of natural disasters over the past 20 years are weather related (i.e., caused by floods, storms, heatwaves, droughts, etc.), and there has been a 14% increase in weather-related disasters over the past decade. There have been nearly 6,500 severe weather-related events worldwide, and the U.S. has been impacted by almost 500 of those – placing it at the top of the list.
Nearly half of the 6,500 disasters have been floods and severe storms, which have been the deadliest of the weather events. They have killed more than 240,000 people, or 40% of all weather-related deaths. In total, weather events have caused more than 600,000 deaths around the globe, as well as 4.1 billion injuries or cases where people needed emergency assistance or housing. Economic loss is more of a challenge to determine, but estimates put the figure at $250 to $300 billion yearly and is suspected to be much higher than the reported total of $1.9 trillion.
So how do these new findings relate to Pilgrim Nuclear? Problems caused by excess CO2 in our atmosphere do not happen uniformly across the globe. For New England, trends that are most pronounced are ocean acidification, sea level rise, and increased rate of temperature change, frequency of extreme precipitation events, and intensity of storms. These changing conditions can have serious impacts on Pilgrim Nuclear – operational or not (Pilgrim has been slated to shut down no later than 2019).
Weather patterns pose risks to Pilgrim’s dry cask nuclear waste storage facility that has been constructed within 175 feet of the shore of Cape Cod Bay, as well as Pilgrim’s so-called “low-level” radioactive waste that is stored within 30 feet of the shoreline. These storage areas are in the coastal zone below safe elevations (about 24 feet above mean seal level for the dry casks). The potential for leaks caused by flooding, storm surge, and corrosive salt air and water is a serious concern.
As Pilgrim moves toward decommissioning, it’s also important to understand the potential impact that weather and coastal hazards (sea level rise, rising groundwater tables, and flooding in particular) can have on the contaminated site. Pilgrim’s soils and groundwater have been contaminated with radionuclides and other pollutants for the past 40+ years. Flooding and other coastal impacts could flush contamination into Cape Cod Bay, especially if Pilgrim is allowed to be mothballed for 60 years before full cleanup is completed. An independent, site-wide survey of all contamination needs to be carried out and a plan for decontamination developed. Pilgrim’s groundwater and soil pollution needs to be monitored and cleaned up – within a decade of closure – in order to protect public and environmental health.
Fixing the root of the problem, global warming, is clearly the key to a healthy and safe planet moving forward. According to a Nov. 28th USA today article, “left unchecked, computer simulations predict global warming will cripple the planet with extreme weather, rising sea levels, worse air quality, threats to many plant and animal species and more.” But before the root cause can be addressed fully, regulators and officials need to ensure that Pilgrim’s nuclear waste is moved to higher elevations, farther away from Cape Cod Bay and securely protected from natural hazards. They also need to ensure Pilgrim’s site is fully and promptly cleaned up after decommissioning to ensure coastal flooding and other hazards do not increasingly contaminate Cape Cod Bay.