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Rising Tides In Seabrook: Is the Nuclear Station Ready For Higher Seas?

Sam Evans-Brown

The Sea is rising. Satellite measurements have found that globally the seas are coming up about 1.2 inches per decade; a rate that has increased by 50% since before the 1990s. On New Hampshire’s seacoast, there’s a lot of vulnerable infrastructure, the most obvious of which is Seabrook Nuclear power station.

Seabrook station sits in a salt-marsh, more than two miles from the open ocean. It’s nestled behind Seabrook and Hampton beaches, and you can see the buildings of the strip in the distance.

Recently NextEra Energy, which owns the station pitched in to help the town of Hampton buy a super accurate tidal gauge. The hope is the gauge will help the region, and Nuke plant, get a handle on what exactly higher seas and stronger storms will mean for the region.

The company spokesman for NextEra, Alan Griffith, says the mile of salt marsh helps soak up flooding when it does happen, lessening the impact of big storms, and the plant itself is situated 21 feet above sea-level. He says it’s been designed with a lot of flood protection.  

Standing out on the salt marsh, he points toward some of the flood protection that was built in decades ago, called a reventment wall. “That entire lip that entire area that goes all the way around is protected by that reventment wall,” he explains that “that’s a further extension over and above what we’ve already been talking about”.

But that doesn’t calm everyone in the community. The Seacoast Anti-Pollution League has been sounding alarm bells about nuclear safety since before the plant was built.

And that’s lead to a familiar back and forth.

Doug Bogan is  the executive director of that group, and he says “projections of sea-level rise of 3 to 6 feet by the end of the century, and perhaps even sooner, seem to indicate that the plant would be inundated by water.”

And the plant’s operators, represented by Griffith, counter with exactly the opposite. “Even under the worst case scenario, it still doesn’t even come close to inundating the Seabrook station in any way shape or form,” he says.

The Sea Is Coming In

These exchanges can be maddening to lay-observers. But UNH Climate Scientist, Cameron Wake, says if you’re worried about sea-level rise, the station shouldn’t keep you awake at night.  “The maps that we’ve drawn for the seacoast area show that the station itself is in relatively good shape in terms of its elevation above mean sea-level,” Wake says.

NH Current 100 year floods.jpg
Credit Complex Systems Research Center / UNH
The map on the left roughly represents the flooding that would occur during a 100-year storm event in Seabrook today.The map on the right looks at a similar storm with 5.2 feet of sea level rise, which is at the upper-end of estimates for what's expected by 2100. Note that while Seabrook Station is mostly high and dry, Hampton fares much worse.

Nuclear safety worries get a lot of attention, but have also led to a lot of planning and preparations at the plant.

Meanwhile a lot of coastal infrastructure – wastewater treatment plants, schools, roads, and sea-side homes – could be more at risk. And Wake is pretty pessimistic about the future of coastal communities that don’t start planning for floods now.

“And that’s a very sad situation but we’re just not going to have the resources to protect the entire 18 miles of seacoast in New Hampshire.” He adds matter-of-factly, “The sea is coming in, and we are going to have to let that sea come in in some places and take infrastructure away.”

What Can Be Done?

The tidal gauge that Seabrook helped to buy is part of that planning process. It will help Hampton Fire and Rescue develop models for what kind of flooding could occur given a forecasted storm surge.

Fall Precipiation Anomoly.jpg
Credit Technical Report NESDIS 142-1 / NOAA
NOAA Data shows a trend of steady increase of precipitation over the years. Annual precipitation is on the top, and in the Fall is on the bottom, both are statistically significant trends.

But emergency response is just part of the picture. If flooding is going to become more common, what does that mean for buildings on the coast?

“Twenty to fifty years from now, things could be drastically different,” says Sue Foote who lives in Seabrook on a piece of land that her family has owned since the 1600s.

During the past decade she’s watched as the rising saltwater table under her wooded lot has killed off the trees on her property.

She’s now part of the Coastal Adaptation Workgroup, which is advising towns on how to build with increased flooding in mind.

For example a home’s first floor – most likely to get flooded – shouldn’t have living space. Instead it should consist of “storage, garage, with blow-out walls if necessary if the storm surge should come through there,” says Foote,and I’m also recommending that they have all their utility connections – like their electric box, their water shut off – located on the second floor.”

This winter has been a tough one on the region. Flooding at Plum Island in Massachussets eroded dunes and caused beach houses to fall into the sea. In February storm surge and waves breached seawalls in Rye and North Hampton, pushing rubble out onto route 1A.

The seacoast is starting to plan for more floods, but the unanswered question: is that planning happening soon enough.

Note: An earlier version of this story put the distance from the Seabrook Nuclear Station to the open ocean at about one mile. In reality it is over two-miles and the article has been changed to reflect that error.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NH
While it would be disastrous if an extreme flooding event did somehow overcome Seabrook's considerable defenses, the damage to coastal communities - two miles closer to the sea - from significantly smaller flooding events is more likely.

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