Rising seas and nuclear islands

“Both the Conservative and Labour parties are stuck in a past that hasn’t kept pace with how rapidly the world is changing.” Green Peer Jenny Jones reflects on the urgent need for the Government to adapt and respond to climate change.

Jenny Jones

The siting of new nuclear power stations on the coast is based upon a judgement made in 2011 when melting ice caps and glaciers were not seen as a major contributor to rising sea levels. Since then, every new assessment by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recalculated predictions of sea level rises upwards as accelerating ice melt shocks us into a new reality. Unless we abandon this folly of seaside power stations, the best we can hope for is a generation of abandoned nuclear power stations, on islands out at sea, fending off the inevitable with ever higher concrete walls.   

In 2007 the IPCC issued its 4th Assessment of climate change and a worst case scenario of the sea level rising between 18-59cm by the year 2100. That didn’t sound so bad to many policy makers. There are many other disastrous problems with climate change, but if you are strengthening coastal defences, then half a metre and more frequent big storms is something that money can solve.

By 2013 the 5th IPCC Assessment had taken that worst case up to 42-80cm and by 2019 an IPCC report leading up to the 6th Assessment had the likely range between 61-109cm. The reasons for this rapid reassessment was the flood of evidence coming in from scientists studying the polar regions.

It seems amazing now, but 15 years ago the IPCC didn’t see melting ice as a significant part of its 100-year calculations. It was only in the following decade that a deluge of data led to the IPCC having to reassess. Ice melt is now the dominant source of sea level rise, exceeding the effect of thermal expansion of ocean water. There is no doubt that water temperatures have doubled, which impacts on everything from chaotic weather systems to the loss of coral reefs, but from now on, sea level rise will be primarily driven by glaciers melting and ice sheets rupturing.

Ice melt on this scale is not just new – it's accelerating. Arctic melt tripled over the period 2007-2016, compared to the previous decade. Earth's great ice sheets, Greenland and Antarctica, are now losing mass six times faster than they were in the 1990s thanks to warming seas.

This is science that changes with every set of winter satellite photos and each record breaking summer heatwave. The transformation is sudden as the Earth’s northern and southern poles are warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

Our political class hasn’t yet grasped the speed of this recent change and how significant it is. Both Labour and Conservatives continue to support the building of new nukes, just as they support the expansion of Heathrow. They are stuck in a past that hasn’t kept pace with how rapidly the world is changing.

The reassuringly minor sea level rises outlined in the 2007 IPCC estimates were the basis for all the discussion in Parliament and Whitehall in the lead up to the government’s National Strategic Plan for new nukes in 2011.

The Government’s view is that the IPCC updates are merely tweaks that can require a greater level of mitigation. Its 2019 review of the guidance on new nukes:

“Regardless of the flood risk associated with a site, regulation in the UK requires nuclear power stations to be protected against all credible flood risks, including allowance for climate change, which may involve the construction of sea defences or raising of the site platform.”

EDF, the promoters of Sizewell C, plans a giant sea wall on the Dunwich-Sizewell sandbank, which is anchored between two hard points on the Suffolk coastline. So the only thing between the rising seas and nuclear disaster would be a lot of concrete placed on top of a long pile of sand and clay, at one end of which is the medieval town of Dunwich – which was thriving until it completely disappeared under the waves in 1338 because of coastal erosion and a huge storm. Don’t we learn anything from history?

EDF is already struggling to keep heads above water with its Dungeness nuclear power station, which was closed prematurely seven years ago after erosion of the shingle bank it is built upon led to it having to be raised several metres. Its response to fears that Sizewell could go the same way is to state that if the sea wall isn’t doing the job, it has “designed flexibility into [its] permanent coastal sea defence, meaning it could be raised further if needed.”  

The really scary thing is that when the latest IPCC report on sea level rises is finally published next year, it will have gone through a system of scientific committees and inter-government panels that will examine the data sets that are increasingly out of date. With each annual update and new report the real time data becomes aligned with the worst-case scenario and I’ve no doubt that by the time we begin the next IPCC review, the worst case will again be shifted upwards.   

The poles are warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world and as the ice melts the regions lose their ability to stay cool by reflecting heat back up into space.

Meanwhile, the latest reports from countries signed up to the Paris Agreement is that we are heading for at least two degrees of warming by 2100. My prediction is that by the time Sizewell C is ready for its official opening, the whole project will be junked as both unnecessary and in the wrong place.

The IPCC calculations focus upon the year 2100, and makes us feel that climate change is a human life span away. Yet the government claims that these new nukes have to be there and safe for 160 years – time enough for the great-grandchild of someone born today to take their own grandchildren to the beach. Perhaps they go to watch some re-enactment of King Canut’s famous lesson about the limits of even a king’s power to hold back tides and nature?

King Canut was the king of a North Sea empire that encompassed Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden. I wonder what he would have made of the knowledge that below the waves of the North sea lies Doggerland, an ancient heartland of human society from 8,000 years before, when people could walk from the hinterland of English forests across to the slopes of modern Denmark. I suspect he probably would have said “I told you so.”