By Eve Samples
January 24, 2013

Climate change is real.

Sea levels are rising.

And the country’s nuclear plants — many of them built on vulnerable coasts — must plan accordingly.

That message didn’t come from a fringe activist. It came from a former Republican governor of New Jersey who served in President George W. Bush’s cabinet.

“We can’t stop it,” said Christine Todd Whitman, who met with our editorial board Tuesday in her role as co-chairwoman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which promotes the benefits of nuclear power.

“We can slow it to give ourselves a little more time to prepare for what’s happening with sea level rise and more severe storms and droughts and floods,” explained Whitman, who was governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001 and head of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003.

She believes nuclear power can play a role in slowing climate change because its greenhouse gas emissions are negligible compared to coal and other traditional energy sources.

As you might expect, Whitman’s talk about nuclear power was mostly positive. She touted a new nuclear training program she had toured at Indian River State College, which will help alleviate a shortage of plant workers. She heralded nuclear power’s efficiency.

But she was blunt in her assessment of climate-related risks. She acknowledged that the owners of the country’s coastal nuclear reactors — including Florida Power & Light Co.’s St. Lucie Nuclear Plant on Hutchinson Island — need to prepare for the increased flood risk that climate change will bring.

“They’ve got to be modeling it,” Whitman said. “You’ve got to take it seriously.”

Most are, she added.

Florida Power & Light spokesman Peter Robbins said the company is confident engineering solutions will be implemented as sea levels slowly rise.

“St. Lucie is specifically built to withstand extreme, natural events, including flooding,” Robbins wrote in an email, adding that the plant is set back more than 2,100 feet from the water and elevated 20 feet above sea level. “Additional elevation and flood protection is provided for the buildings that house critical equipment, such as the emergency generators,” Robbins wrote.

Two natural disasters have highlighted the risks faced by coastal nuclear plants during the past two years. In March 2011, a tsunami caused a triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. As a result, Japanese leaders announced they intend to phase out all nuclear power by 2040.

More recently and closer to home, Hurricane Sandy prompted three nuclear reactors in its path to shut down. The storm didn’t cause any major damage at the plants, but it was a reminder of what they must be able to withstand.

“I think Sandy raised that bar,” Whitman said.

Even as the industry plans for climate change, it faces another, more pressing issue: the need to create a national repository for spent nuclear fuel.

FPL stores thousands of spent fuel rods at its St. Lucie and Turkey Point nuclear plants. It’s a stopgap measure because the federal government has halted plans for a national nuclear fuel storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Storing fuel rods at nuclear plants is not optimal, Whitman said. A national storage site (or perhaps multiple sites) is what the country needs for its 104 reactors, she said.

“This is an issue that needs to be resolved,” Whitman said. “Get on with it and find something.”

FPL officials also are hoping for a long-term, federal solution.

“While we strongly support moving St. Lucie’s used fuel to a permanent federal repository, there is more than adequate room within the secured area of the facility to store all of the used fuel from the rest of St. Lucie’s operating life and beyond,” Robbins wrote.

Roughly 193,000 people in Martin and St. Lucie counties live within a 10-mile radius of the two nuclear reactors at the St. Lucie plant, which FPL upgraded last year to produce about 17 percent more electricity.

Though Whitman didn’t visit our area on behalf of FPL, the utility is a member of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.

Given FPL’s recent track record at the St. Lucie plant, it could use the public relations assist.

Last year, several unplanned shutdowns at the plant’s Unit 1 caused the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to increase its oversight of the plant. It also was one of six reactors in the country that the NRC rated as having “degraded” performance in September.

Whitman said she urges utilities to be transparent with the public, even when it’s not entirely flattering.

Her coalition travels the country, trying to share information about nuclear power so communities can decide whether it’s right for them.

She quipped that she doesn’t want people getting their information about nuclear power from “The Simpsons,” the long-running cartoon that features a bumbling nuclear plant operator.

It’s “not the best place” for information, Whitman said.

Eve Samples is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects her opinion. Contact her at 772-221-4217 or