GAO Report: NRC Inadequately Addresses Climate Disruption Threat to Reactors

CHICAGO—A Government Accountability Office Report draws conclusions about nuclear reactor operation that should make public officials, agencies and policy makers from the most nuclear-reliant state in the U.S. take notice – and action.

The GAO report – NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS: NRC Should Take Actions to Fully Consider the Potential Effects of Climate Change  — asserts that,  “NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] doesn’t fully consider potential increases in risk from climate change.”

“Illinois has the most operating nuclear reactors (11), has recently repealed a moratorium on constructing new ones, and is keen on opening the doors for new experimental reactors.  This report should be a warning shot that more preparation and attention to ongoing nuclear safety in an increasingly  climate disrupted world is in order,” observes David Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a 42-year old nuclear power watchdog organization, based in Chicago.

The Report indicates seven likely climate-related effects that could have safety implications for operating nuclear reactors, both present-day designs and future, experimental reactor types like “small modular nuclear reactors.” (SMNRs)

“…nuclear power plants can be affected by natural hazards—including heat, drought, wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, sea level rise, and extreme cold weather events—some of which are expected to be exacerbated by climate change, with effects varying by region….”

“Risks to nuclear power plants from these [climate disruption] hazards include loss of offsite power, damage to systems and equipment, and diminished cooling capacity, potentially resulting in reduced operations or plant shutdowns.”

“Some of these climate-related effects have already occurred in Illinois and elsewhere,” Kraft notes. “The severe Illinois drought in 1988 resulted in 100 reactor-days of operation being curtailed or completely shut down.  That drought was ‘climate disruption lite,’” he reports.

Illinois has already experienced heightened levels of heat (p.15) and area drought, and periodic regional flooding – which the GAO reports as being high probability (p.20).  Illinois has also shown a dramatic increase in tornado frequency, leading the nation in 2023 with 136.

In its defense the NRC claims that its current regimen of reactor safety review provides “adequate assurance” that reactors are operating safely and the public is protected.

“We wonder how many NRC officials book flights on airlines that provide only ‘adequate’ fuel levels and maintenance to their aircraft?” Kraft asks.

NEIS also notes that the Report highlights that there is a significant difference between claiming assurances and proving them:

“The GAO notes that, “NRC primarily uses historical data in its licensing and oversight processes rather than climate projections data. NRC officials GAO interviewed said they believe their current processes provide an adequate margin of safety to address climate risks. However, NRC has not conducted an assessment to demonstrate that this is the case.” (emphasis ours)

“Talk is cheap,” states NEIS’ Kraft.  “When one bad day at the office can turn Illinois into the Belarus of North America, Illinois officials at all levels should insist that NRC actually conduct reassessments of their reactor standards, anticipating climate changes,” he asserts.

The GAO makes three recommendations to begin to address this NRC failing:

  • The Chair of the NRC should direct NRC staff to assess whether its licensing and oversight processes adequately address the potential for increased risks to nuclear power plants from climate change. (Recommendation 1)
  • The Chair of the NRC should direct NRC staff to develop, finalize, and implement a plan to address any gaps identified in its assessment of existing processes. (Recommendation 2)
  • The Chair of the NRC should direct NRC staff to develop and finalize guidance on incorporating climate projections data into relevant processes, including what sources of climate projections data to use and when and how to use climate projections data. (Recommendation 3).

“While we welcome any and all efforts to improve reactor safety, we also must point out how pathetic and profoundly worrisome it is that a $1+ billion Agency demonstrates such a lack of foresight, initiative and perhaps even competence to understand that the climate crisis is profoundly affecting their core mission,” Kraft laments.  “It is this seeming indifference to its task that has led many over the years to complain that “NRC” stands for ‘Not Really Concerned.’”

“Our Governor and the Illinois Delegation to Congress need to light a much needed fire under this Agency to protect Illinois,” Kraft concludes.


Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS) was formed in 1981 to watchdog the nuclear power industry, and to promote a renewable, non-nuclear energy future.