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Jeffery Salter/Redux for The New Republic

Calm Before the Storm

How the American nuclear industry downplays the threat of climate-induced flooding

Mayor Phil Stoddard keeps enough potassium iodide on hand for all the children of South Miami. The lanky, bespectacled biology professor-cum-municipal politician fears an accident at the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station, which lies 25 miles south of downtown Miami—and a mere 20 miles from Stoddard’s office in South Miami City Hall.

“Right after a nuclear release, you get a lot of radio-iodines … and they bind to your thyroid, and will cause thyroid cancer,” said Stoddard. “On the plus side, it’s one of the few treatable, easily treatable, cancers.”

Stoddard was sitting on the stern of a pleasure boat, next to Cindy Lerner, the former mayor of Pinecrest, another nearby city. The boat was bobbing in calm, blue, shallow water some 500 yards from Turkey Point, which houses two of America’s oldest operating commercial nuclear reactors. The site is massive. On a clear day, you can see the concrete containment vessels of its two Westinghouse pressurized water reactors from the top of the Rickenbacker Causeway in Miami. Its radiatorlike lattice of cooling canals is visible from the International Space Station. From their perch in the boat, Stoddard and Lerner can just barely hear the high-pitched whine of Turkey Point’s turbines. Inside the plant, atoms are split, generating enough emissions-free power for a million homes.

To see Turkey Point from the water is to grasp its close proximity to the sea, which is rising amid accelerating climactic change. The plant’s sea-facing east side was built to withstand 19.7 feet of water. When Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, it produced one of the highest recorded storm tides in South Florida history—16.89 feet—just eleven miles north of the plant. Mean sea level in South Florida has risen slightly more than five inches since then. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts massive tropical systems will only be getting stronger as the planet warms.

“There’s a lot of stuff that’s not supposed to happen that happens infrequently,” Stoddard observed from our calm stretch of shallow seawater. “And that’s the kind of thing that I fret about.”

The chance of a nuclear accident releasing significant radioactivity and harming the public is “very small,” according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency whose mission is, in part, “to provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety.” But as sea levels rise, a flawed understanding of climate science and the outsize influence that the U.S. nuclear industry exerts on the NRC have converged, increasing the risk of disastrous flood-induced accidents at coastal nuclear power plants around the United States.

And because it is so close to Miami, a city projected to be on the frontlines of climate catastrophe, Turkey Point has become the byword for the threat of climate-triggered nuclear calamity. Stoddard joins many local officials, concerned citizens, and environmental groups worrying that Turkey Point is unprepared for sea-level rise. There’s a note of urgency in their campaign: The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is poised to give Florida Power & Light (FPL), the plant’s operator, a license renewal—basically, permission to keep splitting atoms well into the 2050s. FPL also received approval in April 2018 to construct two additional reactors at the low-lying site. 

FPL’s application for license renewal on its two existing reactors, submitted in January 2018, lacks a sea-level–rise projection. A flood-specific analysis conducted after the partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant shows the company expects to see 0.39 feet of sea-level rise at Turkey Point Units 3 and 4 by 2033, which is a reasonable estimate. But how that estimate might be factored into the plant’s future is unclear. What’s more, FPL has also applied to build two new reactors at the Turkey Point site—and the documents supporting that application rely on a projection of one foot by 2100. The NRC accepted that estimate after a year and a half of reviews that included hundreds of pages of scientific analysis, but there’s scant reason to believe the projection will hold. Over that same period, cities and counties in South Florida use a projection of between 2.6 to almost seven feet, based on the best available projections from climate authorities including NOAA and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Stoddard has toured the plant. He has written letters to the NRC expressing concern. He has provided comments pointing out that the sea-level–rise projections used by FPL fall dramatically short of those now in common use among the scientific community. But his protests, together with those of other critics of the FPL facility, have fallen on deaf ears. The NRC considers Turkey Point to be in compliance with its regulations.

“The administrative law judges, and the siting board, and everybody else has let them get away with this, and the NRC,” Stoddard explained. “The NRC, which is under direction to follow the guidance of the Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA, right? And yet they’re not—they’re taking FPL’s kooky, flawed model as acceptable.”

The vulnerabilities of Turkey Point are not unique to South Florida. There are 13 U.S. coastal nuclear power installations where the NRC is not mandating updates that would protect the plants against worst-case flood scenarios. Unless the plants have voluntarily improved their defenses, their protections might prove inadequate today should they face the perfectly wrong set of circumstances. Climate change is only intensifying that risk.

NRC staff are at work developing guidance to help nuclear power plants address climate threats, but industry representatives are impatient, and watchdog scientists are concerned about the agency’s poor track record in taking preventative action. Regulations meant to require plants to respond to a reanalysis of flood risk triggered by the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan have been watered down by Republican-appointed commissioners. As climate change accelerates the risk of flood-induced catastrophe, Stoddard and the communities in Turkey Point’s shadow clamor for tighter regulatory guidelines—or a decommissioning of the facility altogether.

“If there’s an accident, you lose your home, your health is compromised,” Stoddard said. “Poof. And so even if the risk is very small, the cost is infinite to you.… That equation doesn’t work in the favor of the populace.”

The lobby of the building that houses the visitors’ center at the Surry Power Station in Surry, Virginia, feels like the foyer of a small-town library, and smells faintly of gumdrops. But when we embarked on a tour of the plant in June, we were soon reminded of the real business of the site, as sullen, body-armored security guards sporting assault weapons checked identifications just across the street.

As Jan Bennett, who was at the time the senior communications specialist at Surry, led us into the visitors’ center exhibition hall, she stressed how the U.S. nuclear energy sector faithfully adheres to the guidance of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The agency regulates one of the most technical and high-risk industries in the United States, so NRC guidance must pass through a forbidding regimen of scientific review and bureaucratic compliance. That’s part of why employees like Bennett feel confident that fastidious adherence to NRC guidance equates to safety.

“If you aren’t OCD when you start working here, you will be,” Bennett said of the Surry plant’s safety regime. “We work here. We live in the area. Our families live here. So we have a vested interest in making sure it’s safe.”

But a review of NRC documents shows that the agency allows some plants to keep operating without fully addressing major flood risks that the plants themselves were asked to identify after the Fukushima disaster. Units like Surry may be significantly riskier than employees realize.

Bennett showed the group through Surry’s hall of nuclear wonders, where exhibits soothe and educate. The pièce de résistance is a cartoon panorama illustrating how a nuclear plant generates electricity. Each structure in the scene is inset with multicolored LED. Press a button and the panorama erupts with music and flashing lights—a Las Vegas-style carnival of nuclear majesty.

“Did you ever wonder where the electricity comes from when you turn on your lights at home?” exclaims the display’s gung ho narrator: Unstable uranium isotopes shed neutrons, causing a chain reaction moderated by the plant’s control rods. The reaction generates heat, which creates steam that turns a turbine. Boom: electricity.

The light show reassures audiences that nuclear power is safe. Within the cartoon plant, different sets of lights illustrate how water running through each of a reactor’s three cooling cycles is kept separate within the system: the water that touches the uranium never coming into contact with water discharged into the environment. It’s all meant to illustrate engineering fail-safes reinforced by what Bennett calls Surry’s “culture of safety.”

These systems work great unless there’s some sort of malfunction, error, or external event that disrupts normal operations. Just such an event occurred in France on December 27, 1999, at Le Blayais Nuclear Power Plant, on the east bank of the Gironde Estuary, about 30 miles north of Bordeaux. A violent windstorm, a storm surge, and a high tide generated massive waves that overtopped the dikes defending the power plant, flooding the facility. The storm partially knocked out the plant’s external power supply, clogged its coolant intakes with debris, and flooded pumps and emergency pumps, ultimately forcing three of its reactors into emergency shutdown. But because the temperature in a nuclear reactor’s core can reach over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, even after you stop the reaction, you still have to keep cooling the core. If the shutdown is planned—perhaps for routine maintenance or in preparation for a hurricane—you can cool the reactor over a day or two using its backup cooling system. If the shutdown is unplanned and happens simultaneously with a loss of critical cooling systems—as was the case at Le Blayais—things get much more volatile.

“Basically there’s a time line,” explained David Lochbaum, the former head of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project. “A race … starts between workers being able to restore power versus the nuclear fuel overheating and melting down. Hopefully they win that race.”

Blayais’s reactor #1 came closest to disaster: Debris clogged the main cooling system, one of the two essential service water systems shorted out, and the emergency core cooling systems were rendered inoperative. Luckily, the second main cooling pump remained functional, meaning the race never started.

That wasn’t the case with the six boiling water reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. After the great Tohoku earthquake triggered a 45-foot-tall tsunami that disabled the power supply and emergency cooling of three of the plant’s reactors, they lost their race. The ensuing radioactive release led to the displacement of 200,000 people, the initial creation of a 315-square-mile exclusion zone, and a cleanup effort estimated to take 30 to 40 years.

Hell and high water: the Fukushima Daiichi plant after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami
Digital Globe/Getty

After the disaster at Fukushima, the NRC required U.S. nuclear plants to reanalyze the risks posed by flooding and seismic activity. Those reviews exposed plants’ vulnerabilities to something called “beyond design-basis flood events”—flooding significant enough to penetrate plants’ existing defenses.

According to Surry’s post-Fukushima report, the greatest risk of flood-related catastrophe at the facility would be surge combined with flooding from the nearby James River. A particularly severe flood could result in a maximum water level of 38.8 feet—more than ten feet higher than the maximum Surry is built to withstand. It’s a highly unlikely combination of events, but a flood of this scale could wreak havoc on electrical systems and require Surry’s operators to try to cool the core in a dangerously flooded facility.

“We have been working with the NRC to close these issues,” Richard Zuercher, a now-retired spokesman for Dominion Energy, the utility that operates the Surry plant, said by email. Dominion staff noted that the NRC already requires Surry to keep backup pumps and electric generators on-site that would function in the 38.8-foot worst-case scenario; Zuercher said that Surry is “further evaluating adding enhancements.”

Surry is in the process of applying for a license to keep operating for another 20 years. The plant’s application documents mention sea-level rise twice, but only in the context of habitat loss and archaeological preservation, not flood prevention.

Surry’s vulnerability is extreme. But among the country’s 14 operational coastal nuclear power plants, 13 have one or more risks related to flooding, according to reports mandated by the NRC after the Fukushima disaster. The post-Fukushima reports show, for example, that the Brunswick Nuclear Generating Station, near Wilmington, North Carolina, is vulnerable to intense rainstorms, flooding from the Cape Fear River, dam failure, storm surges, and tsunamis—or combinations thereof. At the Millstone Power Station, about 40 miles east of New Haven, Connecticut, the NRC confirmed vulnerabilities to intense precipitation, tsunami, and river flooding, and flagged the potential risk from storm surges and surges stoked by high tides for additional review. And in Florida, Turkey Point’s risks include intense rainstorms, storm surge, tsunamis, and something called a “seiche,” where wind sloshes water dangerously high.

Among the NRC’s post-Fukushima changes was a new risk mitigation program called FLEX. This initiative supplies the framework for the measures Zuercher mentioned at Surry; it requires the nation’s power plants to keep backup pumps, generators, and other safety equipment in a special FLEX building on site. The nuclear industry introduced the program in late 2011; the NRC subsequently approved it and required all plants to install the FLEX system by the end of 2016. But from the beginning, the NRC allowed plants’ FLEX equipment to be stored below the height of the potential maximum flooding identified in the post-Fukushima reports—flooding that FLEX itself was supposed to mitigate.

When we asked Bennett about FLEX, she called security and asked to unlock a door at the back of the visitors’ center. The door opened onto a parking lot, which sat next to a disc-shaped, white-domed building—Surry’s FLEX installation. Inside it are tractors, deployable pumps, and emergency generators—all designed to help plant operators win the race to cool the core. Additional emergency equipment is stored in regional response centers near Memphis, Tennessee, and Phoenix, Arizona; the NRC says this equipment can be delivered to any of the country’s plants within 24 hours.

But seven years after the NRC’s effort to overhaul flooding protocols at coastal nuclear plants, the agency has come under fire from watchdog scientists and some of its own commissioners. The critics say potentially catastrophic flood risks remain unresolved.

In January 2019, NRC commissioners—three of whom were either appointed or promoted by President Trump—passed a final rule for “Mitigating severe events at U.S. Reactors.” The vote was 3–2, and critics contend the commission approve a watered-down version of a rule originally proposed to address the flood risks identified after Fukushima. In its final form, the rule codifies the FLEX program but relieves plants of any firm requirement to address the reevaluated flood risks. Nor do they have to drill employees on operating their FLEX systems. 

“This is a regulation on the cheap,” said Edwin Lyman, acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In a scathing dissent, NRC Commissioner Jeff Baran described the rule as a “complete U-turn ” from the post-Fukushima mandates. “Despite the fact that the Commission had repeatedly and unanimously found that updated safety standards were necessary to adequately protect the public, those safety standards have now been abruptly dropped from the final rule at the last minute, without any warning or notice to stakeholders,” Baran wrote.

To see the force of Baran’s criticism in high relief, one need only contrast the NRC’s laissez-faire approach to the French nuclear regulatory complex’s response after the Blayais flooding. The NRC has mainly focused on trying to ensure U.S. operators are ready to respond by mandating installation of FLEX gear, so that plant operators are equipped to race against a potential meltdown scenario triggered by flooding. Across the pond, French authorities have focused on ensuring that the race never begins; they’ve spent 110 million euros ($122 million) to raise seawalls, strengthen dikes, reinforce flood-proof doors and seals, and create a program to monitor the effects of climate change at nuclear installations.

In a written response to colleagues’ criticisms of the January 2019 rule, NRC Chairwoman Kristine Svinicki contended that an ongoing case-by-case risk evaluation process—an overview of which was released in August 2019—would be enough to protect the public. “We are simply choosing to complete the Commission directed site-specific process already under way rather than to enact additional requirements on a generic basis,” she wrote.

The damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant viewed from a bus, in Japan, Nov. 12, 2011.
David Guttenfelder/The New Yor​k Times/Redux

“The NRC mandated that owners of operating reactors take steps to better protect their facilities from flooding hazards; there’s no doubt about that fact,” explained Lochbaum, the former director of the Nuclear Safety Project. “But it’s not as clear that the steps taken provide the protection against flooding sought by the mandate.” In the United States, some plants voluntarily go above and beyond the minimum steps required by the NRC. Representatives for Turkey Point and Surry, for instance, say the plants regularly test their FLEX equipment. But the power to force plants to take preventative action to reduce flood vulnerabilities lies with the NRC. And by all reasonable measures, the agency has moved away from new mandates that would fully resolve potentially disastrous risks.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s fourth annual probabilistic flood hazards conference is ground zero for the intra-agency debate over climate change. On May 2, in the basement auditorium of the NRC’s Rockville, Maryland, headquarters, Ray Schneider, an engineer at the Westinghouse Electric Co., firmly insisted the debate lead somewhere concrete.

“We want to see what the impact is going to be going forward for the plants, right?” said Schneider—dressed in a generic-issue white shirt, black pants, and wire-frame glasses—voicing an urgent, unresolved issue for the entire civilian nuclear energy sector. His parent company is one of the world’s leading designers of nuclear reactors. He put the question to a panel of scientists who had just presented in an ominously (and awkwardly) titled session on “Climate and Non-stationarity.”

“How would we start feeding some of this back into the modeling, or the procedures, or the guidance to basically make sure that we have the proper protections, and to make sure that we’re basically understanding what’s important and what’s not?” Schneider asked. “Other than saying things are changing?” That is to say, when the message from the data is clear—the climate is changing in fairly specific ways, involving stronger storms and greater variation in rainfall—what are plants supposed to do to prepare?

A silence followed Schneider. Joseph Kanney, an NRC hydrologist moderating the panel, who was sporting the thickest pair of glasses in the room, pierced it.

“Well, who wants to take that?”

The crowd of scientists and bureaucrats broke out into nervous laughter. Scientists have long known that increased greenhouse gas emissions would likely alter rainfall, storm intensity, and ocean levels. The first general climate models that NASA’s James Hansen worked out in the early 1980s accurately predicted effects we’ve observed today. But modeling climate impacts regionally, or at an individual plant, is still something of a scientist’s daydream. And that deepens the mounting sense of exasperation: Plant-specific models are exactly what power plant operators need.

“A few inches could make the difference between flooding vital equipment or not flooding,” explained Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Predictions of how much water might surge from the sea or fall from the sky determine what investments plants make—and what the NRC requires—to protect against flood hazards.

But this level of modeling is still out of reach. The world’s best risk modelers—the ones used by top insurers and financial institutions—are still trying to figure out how to predict changes to local rainfall patterns. Because humans have never witnessed global ice sheets collapsing, the best available sea-level–rise projections give widely disparate ranges for how far oceans may swell in the coming decades. Scientists can’t determine with certainty how climate change will affect hurricanes, though models predict that storms will almost certainly get stronger.

“Ray, you’re entirely correct; this is a challenge,” Kanney replied, floundering. “It’s a struggle. You know, there’s no other way to describe it. It’s a struggle. I can’t give you a time line for when we will have, you know, specific, you know, guidance, for what you need to do about, you know, climate change in the next year. I can’t promise that.”

Kanney was saved by Andrew Campbell, the deputy director of the NRC’s Division of Licensing, Siting and Environmental Analysis, who, with a flourish of administrative authority, stepped to a mic at the far end of the auditorium.

“Joe, I can answer some of that question,” Campbell announced. The room grew tense. Schneider had obviously raised a difficult issue, and now senior NRC leadership was stepping in to smooth everything over. Campbell proceeded to tell the room about an internal staff process the NRC is developing to assess natural hazards. He explained that it will evaluate climate data and determine if specific climactic changes pose a risk to individual plants.

“We are aware, we’re cognizant, we’ll look at the new information as it comes along,” said Campbell, adding, “A lot of what you see on sea-level rise in the public has to deal with the most extreme curve from the NOAA projections out to 100 years…. We have to consider the uncertainties associated with that.”

Campbell also noted that Florida Power & Light, Turkey Point’s operator, included sea-level–rise projections in its application to build two new reactors.

It is true that sea-level–rise projections are part of FPL’s 2018 application. However, as we’ve noted, those projections are far afield from even the best-case projections agreed upon by the world’s top climate scientists and research agencies—e.g., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA, NOAA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The projection promulgated in Turkey Point’s final safety analysis report is 0.78 feet by 2100, rounded to one foot—and described by the report authors themselves as “nominal.” Meanwhile, the company’s 2018 license renewal application for reactors 3 and 4 doesn’t include any sea-level–rise projection at all. And though an application document prepared by the NRC, titled the “Generic Environmental Impact Statement for License Renewal of Nuclear Plants,” does feature an in-depth discussion about sea-level rise, it concludes that “the effects of climate change on Turkey Point Unit 3 and 4 structures, systems, and components are outside the scope of the NRC staff’s license renewal environmental review.”

Globally, the most conservative projection from the most conservative international scientific body, the IPCC, suggests the minimum amount of sea-level rise the world will see by 2100 is 0.85 feet. That’s a worldwide average. That projection assumes emissions will peak before 2020 and decline sharply after. Moreover, it is generally understood that some parts of the globe, including South Florida, will see higher-than-average sea-level rise because of factors like wind and ocean circulation patterns and the region’s position relative to Greenland, a massive ice sheet swiftly melting. Recognizing this, key governmental planning bodies in South Florida use substantially higher projections: The four counties and many of the cities in the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact routinely cite a projected two-foot rise by 2060 and as much as six feet by 2100.

And again, for the 2100 time frame, the NRC has given FPL permission to construct new reactors using a projection of just one foot.

In a January 4 letter to the NRC providing commentary on FPL’s application to build two new reactors, the City of South Miami described the utility’s projections as “stark” and “disturbing.” But South Miami is far from the only voice in the region disputing the NRC’s plainly outlying sea-level estimates. NRC documents record more than 160 comments made during a series of public hearings. State senators, former mayors, adjoining municipalities, college professors, concerned citizens, and the City of Miami all raise the same general objection.

In an interview, FPL senior director Steven Scroggs defended the company’s projections. “There’s no regulatory prescription for a specific sea-level–rise forecast,” he said. “But there are qualifications and requirements that the NRC requires nuclear engineers to utilize.… The sea-level–rise application forecasts that we used met those requirements.”

The NRC also gave a formal written response to the community comments, the gist of which was: “NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] requires consideration of likely future scenarios not extreme future scenarios. However, the gradual increase in sea level and NRC’s safety process protects the public health and safety.” In other words, the numbers that every other planning body in South Florida is now using are extreme, and the problem is far enough away in time that it can be dealt with later.

The NRC did not consider sea-level rise during its safety analyses for the license extension. Nor did the agency include advisories on how to develop projections of sea-level rise in its 2011 technical report for estimating flood risks—in a guidance document for plants across the country.

Documents filed with the NRC show how the engineering firm retained by FPL for the design of reactors 6 and 7 developed a sea-level–rise projection. Engineers at Bechtel Corp. used a linear (straight-line) analysis of local NOAA tidal gauge data. But the rate of sea-level rise isn’t linear, as no end of climate reports are now demonstrating: Rather, seas rise in exponential fashion, accelerating over time because their levels track atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, and because ice sheets tend to collapse—suddenly. This means the global standard for sea-level–rise projections is a curve, shaped like a hockey stick, rather than a line. 

NRC staff, responding to emailed queries, said that FPL’s sea-level–rise estimate of one foot by 2100 was “consistent with the lower end of the range” from a 2014 report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program—the federal program that issues the National Climate Assessment. This is true: The agency’s 2014 projections offer a minimum baseline increase of one foot by the end of the twenty-first century—and a maximum of four feet. But this one-to-four-foot range comes with an important caveat: Uncertainty in the projections means high-risk endeavors (say, nuclear facilities) are advised to engineer their relevant safeguards to the higher ends of the risk curve, not the lower ones. As the report puts it: “... decision makers may wish to use a wider range of scenarios, from 8 inches to 6.6 feet by 2100. In particular, the high end of these scenarios may be useful for decision makers with a low tolerance for risk.”

So what rationale could justify the opposite approach—particularly in an industry with effectively zero room for risk? In a series of emails addressing Turkey Point’s flood risks, NRC staff explained the underlying logic: Because the agency’s calculations include “significant pessimistic assumptions” for known risks like storm surge, coastal plants already have “a significant safety margin” in the event sea-level rise exceeds the agency’s expectations.

But the deeper problem here may not be so much the empirical debate over measuring the rising ocean as it is the NRC’s close ties to the nuclear energy sector. Unlike many federal agencies, the NRC recovers 90 percent of its budget from the industry it regulates, through licensing and inspection fees. And it takes guidance from industry groups that also lobby on Capitol Hill—notably the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a coalition of companies that operate plants, design reactors, and conduct studies on safety and performance. It was the NEI that originally floated the post-Fukushima FLEX program.

“I don’t think [the NEI] are nefarious,” said Lochbaum, the former Nuclear Safety Project director. “They present their views. NGOs and [NRC] staff and others present their views. And it’s up to the commission to determine what’s the right policy path moving forward.”

But part of being a government agency is making difficult—and costly—decisions in the face of uncertainty. The lack of action commensurate to the risk is what worries Lochbaum, Stoddard, and others.

The chemistry manager at Turkey Point, Kevin O’Hare, sporting protective goggles and a hard hat, led a small tour group through the facility’s labyrinthine inner passageways, and up a set of metal stairs onto a landing. At the center of the landing is a turbine longer than a coach bus, protected by a thick metal housing. Through a tiny window in that housing, you can see the turbine spinning.

O’Hare shouts that it’s OK to touch the turbine housing, to feel the vibration made by 802 megawatts of power. And as most visitors do, they immediately register a mix of pride and astonishment and childlike glee at this behemoth, splitting atoms, lighting up Miami so that it glows in the night. 

O’Hare led the tour group back down off the platform. He walked his charges past the building housing the backup diesel generators, and down to the landing by the bay, making sure to point out the flood defenses—and to note the height and the slope of the concrete leading up from the water to the reactor’s housing.

Earlier, in a conference room, O’Hare had used the word “steward” to describe the responsibility borne by Turkey Point’s employees. And then he’d taken a phone call.

“Sorry, this is that emergency call,” he said. “I can’t keep putting it off. We’ll put it on speaker.”

It was a weekly call to test the plant’s emergency response system; yet another hallmark of how everything related to building, operating, maintaining, and safeguarding a nuclear plant follows meticulous procedures—tens of thousands of physical and virtual documents, a welter of excruciatingly detailed plans and instructions for every U.S. nuclear power plant.

For O’Hare, this fastidiousness is a mark of pride. For NextEra Energy, the Fortune 200 company that owns Florida Power & Light, those reams of procedures and regulations represent a heavy cost. And in an electricity market increasingly powered by cheap natural gas, those costs—and the costs of maintaining or repairing aging plants—are making nuclear power less competitive. Thanks to these market pressures, five nuclear plants have shut in the past five years. Another twelve may do so in the next six. There aren’t enough new nuclear power plants on the drawing board to replace those that come off line. The two reactors now under construction suffer from cost overruns. South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper abandoned plans to build two reactors in 2017. And Florida Power & Light’s NRC-approved additional two reactors at Turkey Point may never come online.

Almost 20 percent of all electric power nationwide is generated by atomic fission. The dwindling margins of profitability for commercial nuclear power have serious implications—not just for the residents of South Florida, but also for a planet faced with the challenge of a swift transition away from fossil fuels.

Back on the pleasure boat circling near the facility, South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard stood at the bow, watching a backhoe at work near the perimeter of Turkey Point.

“If you had to, you know, pick the whole thing up and raise it up another 20 feet, that’s not that technically difficult,” he said. “It’s just expensive.”

From this vantage, the solutions to climate change are easy to imagine: Build your coastal nuclear power plant 20 feet higher, and buy time until the world figures out a way to dial down the global thermostat. The catastrophes of flooding induced by climate change are likewise easy to conceive: A surge from a massive storm wipes out a plant’s pumps and emergency generators, causing the core to overheat and melt down, spewing radioactive particles into the ocean and the sky. It’s still an infinitesimal risk, but we’ve seen it play out in horrifying detail for the communities around Fukushima Daiichi. As the American nuclear industry sits in denial before the rising seas, industry leaders, the NRC, and the rest of us can ill afford to act as though extreme flood risks aren’t swelling with the tide.

This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.