Nuclear Power: Systemic Risk And Climate Change


Humanity faces a large number of challenges in future decades including increasing population leading to increased competition for dwindling resources and climate change. These challenges could lead to ‘collapse of civilisation’ i.e. the complex system of exchange of good and raw materials, energy, food and water would be susceptible to shocks or many even collapse altogether.

The nuclear industry is unique in the danger it poses from systemic shocks or collapse. Without of power supply, fresh water and human expertise it creates the risk of reactor core meltdown and/or a spent fuel fire which could release massive amounts of radioactivity with catastrophic results.

Although the consultation document has taken into account a possible scenario of a 3.2m sea level rise (SLR):

2.12.63. The main platform would be at a level of 7.3m AOD, which is similar to the 1 in 1000 annual probability extreme still water levels in the year 2110 for the worst credible H++ climate change scenario (3.2m SLR, including land motion). The H++ scenario identified in UKCP09 is beyond the likely range, but within physical plausibility. The main platform would therefore be safe and resilient for its whole operational life against the worst credible climate change predictions.1

only the direct risk from the sea level rise in the vicinity of the power plant has been taken into account. However, it is necessary2 to take into account indirect risks from such a sea level rise and associated climate change factors outline in the H++ scenario.

Systemic Collapse

“Often, too, we have not fully assessed the indirect or systemic risks, such as those affecting international security – even though, as the UK’s first national climate change risk assessment found, these could be far greater than the direct risks like coastal flooding. Assessing the threat of climate change today demands a more coordinated, more sophisticated, more holistic approach.”

Rt Hon. Baroness Anelay of St Johns Minister of State, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office3

Even without climate change the human race faces many problems in the coming decades. With climate change there are a growing number of people in academia and politics who consider these factors along with climate change could lead to the collapse of ‘civilisation’ by the end of the century:

“Humanity just won’t be able to cope with the world we are heading for.”

Prof Peter Stott, Met Office Hadley Centre4

Collapse of civilisation is a near certainty within decades

Paul Ehrlich, President of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University5

If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon

David Attenborough6

It is time we consider the implications of it being too late to avert a global environmental catastrophe in the lifetimes of people alive today.

Professor Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership University of Cumbria7

Collapse will not be driven by a single, identifiable cause simultaneously acting in all countries, it will come through a self-reinforcing complex of issues

Dennis Meadows, Professor Emeritus Of Systems Policy at the University of New Hampshire8

In fact, one of the main lesson to be learned from the collapses of the Maya, Anasazi, Easter Islanders, and those other past societies […] is that a society’s steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the society reaches its peak numbers, wealth, and power. […] The reason is simple: maximum population, wealth, resource consumption, and waste production mean maximum environmental impact, approaching the limit where impact outstrips resources

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive9

Unlike many apocalyptic prophesies that have arisen over the years these risks have valid scientific and socio-economic basis.

In a media landscape saturated with sensational Science stories and “End of the World” Hollywood productions, it may be hard to persuade the wide public that real catastrophes could arise as unexpectedly as the 2008 financial crisis, and have a far greater impact.

Martin Rees, UK Astronomer Royal10

The risk of a systemic collapse before the end of the century therefore has probability that cannot be ignored in current planning.

Climate Stability and Human Development

Human civilisation has developed in a period of reasonably stable climate conditions11

However, even within this ‘stable’ period there is evidence that sudden sea level rise and climate change has severely affected development. For example the decline in the rapid declines in the establishment of Neolithic sites in south-east Europe about 8,000 year ago12

The relatively stable climate and sea level allowed for the development of agriculture, coastal ports and cities that allowed trade and international development.

Many of the urban area surrounding ports have developed over thousands of years and currently handle 90% of world trade13.

These changes, coupled with other global dynamics, including growing, urbanizing, more affluent populations, and substantial economic growth in India, China, Brazil, and other nations, will devastate homes, land, and infrastructure. Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.

USA Department of Defence Quadrennial Defence Review 201414

System Modelling

Although difficult modelling of whether the global economy and population is on a path of sustainability or collapse has been attempted. One of the landmark publications was in 1972 with the publication of The Limits Of Growthx15. In 2014 the Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne “standard run” (or business-as-usual, BAU) scenario aligns well with historical data that has been updated16

Through a dozen scenarios simulated in a global model (World3) of the environment and economy, Meadows et al. (1972, p. 125) identified that “overshoot and collapse” was avoidable only if considerable change in social behaviour and technological progress was made early in advance of environmental or resource issues. When this was not achieved in the simulated scenarios, collapse of the economy and human population (ie. a relatively rapid fall) occurred in the 21st century, reducing living conditions to levels akin to the early 20th century according to the modelled average global conditions. Exactly how this would play out in the real world is open to conjecture, as noted below.

Food Production And Stability

Climate change will also affect the ability to grow food in certain areas. This includes the UK where recent abnormal weather has already affected crop yields:

Apple growers lost around 25% of their harvest in 2017 due to unexpectedly late frosts . Carrot yields (down a reported 25-30%) and onion yields (reportedly down 40% on a normal year) were hampered in 2018 by warmer than average temperatures. Potato yields were down on average 20% in England and Wales in 2018 compared to the previous season , making it the fourth smallest harvest since 1960. For consumers, the lack of water and extreme heat of 2018 was reported to have cut more than one inch off the size of the average chip17

Nearly 85 per cent of fertile peat topsoil in East Anglia has been lost since 1850, with the remainder at risk of being lost over next 30–60 years18

Food shortages and increased food prices are also associated with increasing social unrest particularly in areas of the world where food costs take up a larger proportion of peoples income.

The large increase in food prices in 2008 and 2011 sparked a large amount of civil unrest in North Africa and the Middle East.

For instance, Al-Shabaab and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the terrorist organizations based in Somalia and Iraq respectively, were shown to recruit in regions where natural resources, increasingly impacted by climate change, can no longer support nature-based livelihoods such as agro-pastoralism

Climate Change Adaptation in the Arab States UNDP19

Although the current affects of climate change may seem remote and seem to have little impact on the stability of the UK this may not be true in the future. Large scale unrest in the Middle East or Africa (Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria) may lead to involvement of other countries. Such a situation may have drastic consequences for oil supply.

Developing countries are also a key supplier of raw materials for the UK some of which are already classed as critical20.

Specific Risk At Nuclear Site

It is reasonably foreseeable that a systemic shock occurs resulting in loss of essential services such as power and/or water supply could result in core meltdown and/or a fire in the spent fuel pond. Even if such a catastrophe is averted doing so will lead to diversion of scarce resources to maintaining a nuclear power plant that is no longer able to supply electricity. This would be even more problematic if the systemic shock results in systemic collapse.

A 1997 report for the NRC by Brookhaven National Laboratory found that a fire in a spent fuel pond containing the last core could render about 188 square miles uninhabitable, cause as many as 28,000 cancer fatalities, and cost $59 billion in damage (not including health costs)21 even for a low release faction.

It should be noted that for the stage 1 and stage 2 consultations it was proposed that the spent fuel would be stored on site in a second cooling pond. The figures from the Brookhaven report for a full pool with a high release faction are 2790 square miles uninhabitable, 143,000 cancer fatalities and $566 billion in damage.

A study by the staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) analysed a “loss of coolant” accident at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. One scenario resulted in a fire of the spent fuel rods and the release of radioactivity that the study finds would lead to more than 17,000 cancer deaths, 9,400 square miles of evacuated territory (nearly twice the area of East Anglia) and more than 4 million people displaced long-term. (The first number uses the usual low-dose risk coefficient of 0.05 per person-Sv.)22.

It is reasonably foreseeable that a systemic collapse occurs and the Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) is not completed or we do not have the resources/ability to move the spent fuel from Sizewell to the GDF. Dry stores of nuclear fuel have a limited lifetime.

A number of power plants, nuclear included, have experienced chloride stress corrosion cracking of austenitic stainless steel piping that has been exposed to a salt air atmosphere where concentration can occur after a period of 30 years or less. This is well short of the anticipated 100 year storage requirements that have now been placed on spent fuel storage casks.

US Department of Energy, 201123

Risk Analysis

In light of the above the risk of a systemic collapse cannot be ignored in the risk analysis for nuclear power plants. Therefore EDF have a legal obligation to provide a safety case to show that the risk of a systemic collapse is less than 10-7 per annum.

1 Sizewell C Volume 2A Preliminary Environmental Information, EDF Energy January 2019 (

2 Safety Assessment Principles for Nuclear Facilities 2014 Edition, Office of Nuclear Regulation, 2014 (

3 The Rt Hon. Baroness Anelay of St Johns Minister of State, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Climate Change A Risk Assessment (–a-risk-assessment-v11.pdf)

4 Climate change made UK heatwave 30 times more likely – Met Office , The Guardian, 6 December 2018 (

5 Paul Ehrlich: ‘Collapse of civilisation is a near certainty within decades’, The Guardian, 22 March 2018 (

6 David Attenborough: collapse of civilisation is on the horizon, The Guardian, 3 December 2018 (

7 Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy IFLAS Occasional Paper 2 (

8 Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return? Dennis Meadows, professor emeritus of systems policy at the University of New Hampshire, Scientific American, 23 May 2014 (

9 Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin Books, 2011, chapter “The world as a polder: what does it all mean to us today?”section “One-liner objections”, page 509 (ISBN 978-0-241-95868-1).

10 Denial of Catastrophic Risks, Martin Rees, Science 2013 (

11 The folly of two degrees, Climate Plus 2014 (

12 Black Sea outflow response to Holocene meltwater events, Jens O. Herrle, Jörg Bollmann, Christina Gebühr, Hartmut Schulz, Rosie M. Sheward & Annika Giesenberg, Nature Scientific Reports volume 8, Article number: 4081 (2018) (

13 Shipping and World Trade, International Chamber of Shipping (

14 Quadrennial Defence Review 2014, USA Department of Defence, 2014 (

15 Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J. & Behrens III, W. W. 1972, The Limits to Growth,Universe Books, New York, US

16 Is Global Collapse Imminent? An Updated Comparison of The Limits to Growth with Historical Data, Research Paper No. 4 August 2014, Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourn (

17 Recipe for Disaster, Climate Coalition, (

18 Graves A and Morris J (2013) ‘Restoration of fenland peatland under climate change: Report to the adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change’, Cranfield University. (

19 Climate Change Adaptation in the Arab States, UN Development Programme, 2018 (

20 Critical raw materials, British Geological Survey (

21 A Safety and Regulatory Assessment of Generic BWR and PWR Permanently Shutdown Nuclear Power Plants, Brookhaven National Laboratory, 1997 (

22 Consequence Study of a Beyond-Design-Basis Earthquake Affecting the Spent Fuel Pool for a U.S. Mark I Boiling Water Reactor, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, October 2013 (

23 Life Prediction of Spent Fuel Storage Canister Material, US Department of Energy (