Looking For Better Ways to Determine Severe Weather Hazards

Thomas Nicholson
Senior Technical Advisor
Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research


The NRC staff evaluates flood hazards when we review applications for new nuclear facility sites. In addition, we re-examine flooding at operating nuclear power plants — a result of what we learned from the 2011 tsunami flooding at Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japan. These evaluations cover a range of flood events including extreme storms that produce intense local rainfall. The NRC works with other federal agencies to better understand events caused by severe weather as we develop ways to better evaluate possible flooding issues at these sites.

weatherBefore the Fukushima event, the NRC staff informed the Federal Subcommittee on Hydrology of the urgent need to update the National Weather Service’s reports for estimating extreme rainfall events. We use these reports as the basis for our flood design and protection studies. As a result, the subcommittee formed a task force and later the Extreme Storm Events Work Group. The work group is looking at the best practices being used to study extreme storms, and developing estimation procedures and guidance.

The Extreme Storm Events Work Group has an impressive membership. In addition to the NRC, it includes the National Weather Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Tennessee Valley Authority, and the U.S. Geological Survey. The work group meets monthly to talk about ongoing activities and products federal agencies are developing to help monitor, model and publish rainfall estimates.

Based in large part on the group’s work, we held a three-day workshop last year on probabilistic flood hazard assessment. The workshop brought together more than 250 international experts and included presentations and panel discussions on extreme rainfall events, coastal storm surge flooding, river flooding, tidal waves, flood-induced dam and levee failures, and combined flood events.

More recently, the work group held a workshop at the National Weather Service to define needed extreme storm products for the nation. These products will greatly assist the federal agencies that are moving towards a risk-informed approach for assessing flooding hazards. NRC staff members are benefiting greatly by their interactions with their federal counterparts in the work group.

Nuclear power plants are built to withstand local extreme weather, but we are always learning how safety margins can be improved even more. By working with weather experts in other federal agencies, we can build on what they’re doing and our nuclear power plants will benefit from this collaboration. We can’t stop flooding from happening, but we can make sure the facilities we regulate are prepared to deal with it safely.