Article Highlight | 6-Jul-2022

Better estimating the risk of coastal flooding for nuclear power plants

A joint research team from France and Quebec is developing a more accurate methodology to prevent human and environmental disasters.

Institut national de la recherche scientifique - INRS

QUEBEC and PARIS, July 6, 2022 – Coastal facilities around the world must be designed to be protected against extreme sea levels. However, according to a team of Quebecois and French researchers from the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS), the Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire (IRSN), and the Université Gustave Eiffel, current estimates of coastal flood risks contain biases. The scientists therefore came up with a methodology that allows historical data to be used more efficiently and optimally. Their work, recently published in the journal Water Resources Research, may have important implications for risk management, particularly when it comes to the protection of coastal nuclear power plants in several countries.

“The novelty of our work lies in the fact that we can incorporate all available sources of information  to create the most accurate estimate of the risk. The methodology we developed also makes it possible to correct the biases of previous tools,” explains Laurie Saint Criq, first author of the study, who carried out this work as part of the co-supervised France-Quebec doctorate at IRSN and INRS.


A more precise methodology


Sea levels are characterized by predicted tides and surges. Statistical analyses of the measured data often focus on surges, which are random variables. “The proposed method makes it easier to use record sea levels found in archives, which are absent from the data recorded by tide gauges,” says Eric Gaume, head of the Geotechnics Environment and Risks department at the University Gustave Eiffel and co-author of the study.


The study focused on the case of coastal nuclear power plants in France. According to guide no. 13 of the French nuclear safety authority (Authorité de Sûreté Nucléaire), nuclear plants must be protected from sea levels equal to a maximum tidal level (taking into account changes to the average sea level) plus a surge that has a one in 1,000 chance of being exceeded every year, i.e. that can occur on average every 1,000 years. However, at some stations, the recorded data only go back 30 years.


“It is unrealistic to estimate a 1,000-year surge level with only 30 years of data. This is why we are looking to integrate historical data, to increase the observation time,” says Laurie Saint-Criq, a doctoral student at INRS.


Growing risks due to climate change

Taha Ouarda, professor at INRS and Canada Research Chair in Statistical Hydroclimatology, reminds us that with climate change, extreme weather events will intensify and that we have already surpassed the estimated risk threshold, as calculated 20 years ago.

“Our results show that some of the methods and estimates of extreme sea levels that were used when building such major structures were wrong,” says Ouarda, co-author of the study.

According to the research team, the proposed methodology will be of great interest to many countries around the world and to several nuclear plants. It could also be used for other types of coastal infrastructure, such as ports or bridges.

Future scientific developments

IRSN researcher Yasser Hamdi emphasizes that Laurie Saint Criq’s thesis work aims at a thorough use of historical data—the subject of the article—but also at a thorough use of the data available in the area around the studied site.

“High surges are caused by storms that, by nature, affect a wide area around the studied site. Therefore, in addition to the time component, there is a geographical component that provides very useful information to define extreme surges,” says Yasser Hamdi, co-author of the study.

About the study

The paper ”Extreme Sea Level Estimation Combining Systematic Observed Skew Surges and Historical Record Sea Levels ,” by Laurie Saint-Criq, Eric Gaume, Yasser Hamdi, and Taha B. M. J. Ouarda, was published on March 2022  in the journal Water Resources Research. The study was supported by the Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire (IRSN).

About INRS 

INRS is a university dedicated exclusively to graduate level research and training. Since its creation in 1969, INRS has played an active role in Québec’s economic, social, and cultural development and is ranked first for research intensity in Québec. INRS is made up of four interdisciplinary research and training centres in Québec City, Montréal, Laval, and Varennes, with expertise in strategic sectors: Eau Terre Environnement, Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications, Urbanisation Culture Société, and Armand-Frappier Santé Biotechnologie. The INRS community includes more than 1,500 students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty members, and staff.


About IRSN

IRSN is a public institution with industrial and commercial activities (EPIC). IRSN’s missions have been consolidated by theAct No. 2015-992 of 17 August 2015 concerning Energy Transition and Green Growth (TECV) - is the national public expert on nuclear and radiological risks. IRSN contributes to public policies in the fields of nuclear safety and ionizing radiation protection for public health and environment. As a research and scientific institution it acts in consultation with all stakeholders concerned by these policies, while preserving its independence of judgment.

IRSN is placed under the joint authority of the Ministers of ecological transition, research, energy, health and defence.

About Université Gustave Eiffel

L’Université Gustave Eiffel est une université expérimentale, créée le 1er janvier 2020. Elle est issue de la réunion de six établissements d’enseignement et de recherche : l’Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, l’IFSTTAR, l’ESIEE, l’ENSG, l’EIVP et l’École d’architecture de la ville et des territoires. L’université est placée sous la double tutelle du Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur, de la Recherche et de l’innovation et du Ministère de la transition écologique et de la cohésion des territoires. Elle est la première université française dans les domaines du transport et du génie civil d’après le classement de Shanghai.



Julie Robert

INRS Communications and Public Affairs Department

+1 514-971-4747


Pascale Portes

IRSN Communications Department

+33(0) 1 58 35 70 33




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