Experts: Move to protect nuke plants from solar flare damage
WASHINGTON - It has happened before and it will happen again: an Earth-bound electromagnetic pulse from the sun that disrupts the power grid by burning out high-voltage transformers.
It happened in March 1989 at the Hydro-Quebec system in Canada, tripping transmission lines, burning out a high-voltage transformer in New Jersey and causing the failure of 12 others within months, all blamed on the solar blast. It happened again in October 2003 over South Africa, frying 15 high-voltage transformers.
The biggest-ever happened in the Carrington Event of 1859 -- named for Richard Carrington, the British astronomer who made the connection with a solar flare and the increased energy in the atmosphere. The pulse surged through telegraph lines, the high-tech telecommunications network of their day, rending them unusable for a couple of days, making keys click on their own, and actually catching a few lines on fire.
Though rare, a Carrington-like burst in the 21st century would have a catastrophic, civilization-altering effect, experts say. Legislation introduced in Congress last month makes the ominous case that "contemporary U.S. society is not structured, nor does it have the means, to provide for the needs of nearly 300 million Americans without electricity."
The sun ended one of its quietest periods of the past century in mid-February with a moderate-sized solar flare. Most experts believe solar activity will reach a peak of a regular 11-year cycle in either 2012 or 2013, but no one knows exactly how powerful those disturbances might be.
Thomas Popik, an economic researcher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineering graduate and a former Air Force expert on unattended power sources at radar sites, and his New Hampshire-based Foundation for Resilient Societies, think they have a solution to one sobering consequence of a grid failure.
They filed a petition with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission earlier this month addressing a dire concern: If the spent fuel rod pools at the country's 104 nuclear power plants lose their connection to the power grid, they believe current regulations aren't sufficient to guarantee those pools won't boil over, exposing the hot, zirconium-clad rods and sparking fires that would release deadly radiation.
Their solution is a relatively inexpensive, $152,800-per-plant arrangement to keep the coolant pools operating unattended in the wake of such an event. The foundation's members are not anti-nuclear, he insists, and their evidence comes from existing government studies, not advocacy groups.
"The amount of attention we're gotten so far is moderate and the reason is that, considering what would happen if the electric grid were to come down is an emotionally upsetting topic," he said. "In this kind of event -- if large transformers were to become damaged -- the major cities would become uninhabitable and the United States would not be able to support its current population," he said. "
The NRC is taking his petition seriously and will consider the possibility of new regulations after an extensive review of the petition, said spokesman Scott Burnell.
But he added: "Today there are requirements in place for both emergency power sources and spent fuel pool operations that the NRC feels are appropriate for assuring the public's health and safety going forward."
Nuclear power plants are not themselves self-powered and require a tie-in to the electric power grid to operate. They are also required to have back-up alternatives, such as diesel generators, and the ability to operate their safety systems off the grid for at least 30 days.
"The agency is well aware of a lot of scenarios that can cause what we call a loss of offsite power -- in other words, the grid goes down and you don't have any more electricity coming into the plant," Burnell said. "Even if you lose power at the plant, you still have an extended period of time before you even get to the point that you're losing enough water from the pool to be concerned."
Popik's petition says that extended period is not long enough. Replacing the 350 high-voltage transformers that could fail and bring down the grid east of the Mississippi and in the Pacific Northwest, as envisioned by a recent report by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, could take two years. He proposes regulations requiring back-up safety procedures so that spent fuel pools could operate unattended until grid power is restored.
The Oak Ridge Lab report, released last October, said, "should a storm of this (Carrington) magnitude strike today, it could interrupt power to as many as 130 million people in the United states alone, requiring several years to recover."
Right now, the kind of high-voltage transformers that might fail with a solar pulse aren't manufactured in the U.S. That will change in April 2013 when a Mitsubishi Electric plant begins operations in Memphis. Its general manager, Kenneth Badaracco, said the plant will turn out "something less than 100" transformers a year costing between $3 million and $5 million each.
In addition to the NRC review of the threat of solar flares on spent fuel pool operations, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., introduced a bill earlier this month to give the president authority to direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to take emergency measures "to protect the reliability of the bulk-power system" against the threat of "any reasonably foreseeable geomagnetic storm or electromagnetic pulse event."
The legislation, which also addresses the threat of such a pulse event set off by terrorists, would require operators of large transformers to have available replacements "to promptly restore the reliable operation of the bulk-power system."
FERC Commissioner Cheryl LeFleur said it's high time to establish regulations to prevent the threat of solar flares, noting "there were no fire codes before the Chicago fire and now there are fire codes. It's well within our reach to protect our high-voltage grid from solar flare threats but we just have to do it."
LeFleur also endorsed the bill's directive to have more transformers available because of the long lead time it takes to build them.