Why a Likely Natural Event Could Cause Nuclear Reactors to Melt Down and Our Grid to Crash

Unless we take significant protective measures, this apocalyptic scenario is actually possible.

There are nearly 450 nuclear reactors in the world, with hundreds more either under construction or in the planning stages. There are 104 of these reactors in the USA and 195 in Europe. Imagine the havoc it would wreak on our civilization and the planet's ecosystems if we were to suddenly experience not just one or two nuclear meltdowns, but many more of them. How likely is it that our world might experience an event that could ultimately cause multiple reactors to fail and melt down at approximately the same time? Unless we take significant protective measures, this apocalyptic scenario is possible.

Consider the ongoing problems caused by three reactor core meltdowns, explosions and breached containment vessels at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi facility, and the subsequent health and environmental issues. Consider the millions of innocent victims who have already died or continue to suffer from horrific radiation-related health problems ("Chernobyl AIDS," epidemic cancers, chronic fatigue, etc.) resulting from the Chernobyl reactor explosions, fires and fallout. If just two serious nuclear disasters, spaced 25 years apart, could cause such horrendous environmental catastrophes, it is hard to imagine how we could ever hope to recover from hundreds of similar nuclear incidents occurring simultaneously across the planet.

Since more than one third of all Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, this is a serious issue that should be given top priority. In the past 152 years, the Earth has been struck by roughly 100 solar storms causing significant geomagnetic disturbances (GMD), two of which were powerful enough to rank as "extreme GMDs." If an extreme GMD of such magnitude were to occur today, it could initiate a chain of events leading to catastrophic failures our world's nuclear reactors, quite similar to the disasters at both Chernobyl and Fukushima, but multiplied many times. When massive solar flares launch a huge mass of highly charged plasma (a coronal mass ejection, or CME) directly toward Earth, colliding with our planet's outer atmosphere and magnetosphere, the result is a significant geomagnetic disturbance.

Since an extreme GMD last occurred in May of 1921, long before the advent of modern electronics, widespread electric power grids and nuclear power plants, we are for the most part blissfully unaware of this threat and totally unprepared for its consequences. The good news is that relatively affordable equipment and processes could be installed to protect critical components in the electric power grid and its nuclear reactors, thereby averting this "end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it" scenario. The bad news is that even though panels of scientists and engineers have studied the problem, and the bipartisan congressional EMP commission has presented a list of specific recommendations to Congress, our leaders have yet to approve and implement a single significant preventative measure.

Most of us believe something like this could never happen. If it could, certainly our "authorities" would do everything in their power to prevent such an apocalypse from ever taking place. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. 

Nuclear Power Plants and the Electric Power Grid

Our global system of electrical power generation and distribution -- "the grid" -- upon which every facet of our modern life is utterly dependent, in its current form is extremely vulnerable to severe geomagnetic storms of a magnitude that tends to strike our planet on an average of approximately once every 70 to 100 years. We depend on this grid to maintain food production and distribution, telecommunications, Internet services, medical services, military defense, transportation, government, water treatment, sewage and garbage removal, refrigeration, oil refining and gas pumping, and to conduct all forms of commerce.

Unfortunately, the world's nuclear power plants are critically dependent upon maintaining connection to a functioning electrical grid, for all but relatively short periods of electrical blackouts, in order to keep their reactor cores continuously cooled so as to avoid catastrophic reactor core meltdowns and spent fuel rod storage pond fires.

If an extreme GMD were to cause widespread grid collapse (which it most certainly will), in as little as one or two hours after each nuclear reactor facility's backup generators either fail to start, or run out of fuel, the reactor cores will start to melt down. After a few days without electricity to run the cooling system pumps, the water bath covering the spent fuel rods stored in spent fuel ponds will boil away, allowing the stored fuel rods to melt down and burn. Since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission currently mandates that only one week's supply of backup generator fuel needs to be stored at each reactor site, it is likely that after we witness the spectacular celestial light show from the next extreme GMD we will have about one week in which to prepare ourselves for potential disaster.

To do nothing is to behave like ostriches with our heads in the sand, blindly believing that "everything will be okay," as our world inexorably drifts towards the next naturally recurring, 100 percent inevitable, super solar storm and resultant extreme GMD. 

The End of the Grid As We Know It

There are records from the 1850s to today of roughly 100 significant geomagnetic solar storms, two of which in the last 25 years were strong enough to cause millions of dollars worth of damage to key components that keep our modern grid powered. In March of 1989, a severe solar storm induced powerful electric currents in grid wiring that fried a main power transformer in the HydroQuebec system, causing a cascading grid failure that knocked out power to 6 million customers for nine hours while also damaging similar transformers in New Jersey and the United Kingdom. More recently, in 2003 a solar storm of lesser intensity, but longer duration, caused a blackout in Sweden and induced powerful currents in the South African grid that severely damaged or destroyed 14 major power transformers, impairing commerce and comfort over major portions of the country, which was forced to resort to massive rolling blackouts that dragged on for many months.

During the Great Geomagnetic Storm of May 14-15, 1921, brilliant aurora displays were reported in the Northern Hemisphere as far south as Mexico and Puerto Rico, and in the Southern Hemisphere as far north as Samoa. Prior to the advent of the microchip and modern extra-high-voltage (EHV) transformers (key grid components that were first introduced in the late 1960s), most electrical systems were relatively robust and resistant to the effects of GMDs. Given the fact that a simple electrostatic spark can fry a microchip, and many thousands of miles of power lines act like giant antennas for capturing massive amounts of GMD-spawned electromagnetic energy, the electrical systems of the modern world are far more vulnerable than their predecessors.

The federal government recently sponsored a detailed scientific study to more fully understand the extent to which critical components of our national electrical power grid might be effected by either a naturally occurring GMD or a man-made EMP. Under the auspices of the EMP Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and reviewed in depth by the Oakridge National Laboratory and the National Academy of Sciences, Metatech corporation undertook extensive modeling and analysis of the potential effects of extreme geomagnetic storms upon the U.S. electrical power grid. Based upon a storm of intensity equal to the storm of 1921, Metatech estimated that within the US induced voltage and current spikes, combined with harmonic anomalies, would severely damage or destroy over 350 EHV power transformers critical to the functioning of the U.S. grid, and possibly well over 2,000 EHV transformers worldwide.

EHV transformers are custom-designed for each installation and are made to order, weighing as much as 300 tons each, and costing well over $1 million each. There is currently a three-year waiting list for a single EHV transformer (due to recent demand from China and India, the lead times have grown from one to three years), and the total global manufacturing capacity is roughly 100 EHV transformers per year when the world's manufacturing centers are functioning properly.

The loss of thousands of EHV transformers worldwide would cause a catastrophic collapse of the grid, stretching across much of the industrialized world. It will take years at best for the industrialized world to put itself back together after such an event, and most of the manufacturing centers that make this equipment will also be grappling with widespread grid failure.

Our Nuclear "Achilles Heel"

So what do extended grid blackouts have to do with potential nuclear catastrophes? Nuclear power plants are designed to disconnect automatically from the grid in the event of a local power failure or major grid anomaly, and once disconnected they begin the process of shutting down the reactor's core. In the event of the loss of coolant flow to an active nuclear reactor's core, the reactor will start to melt down and fail catastrophically within a matter of a few hours at most. 

It was a short-term cooling system failure that caused the partial reactor core meltdown in March 1979 at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania. Similarly, according to Japanese authorities it was not direct damage from Japan's 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake on March 11, 2011 that caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor disaster, but the loss of electric power to the reactor's cooling system pumps when the reactor's backup batteries and diesel generators were wiped out by the ensuing tsunami. In the hours and days after the tsunami shuttered the cooling systems, the cores of reactors number 1, 2 and 3 were in full meltdown and released hydrogen gas, fueling explosions which breached several reactor containment vessels and blew the roof off the building housing the spent fuel storage pond of reactor number 4.

Of even greater danger and concern than the reactor cores themselves are the spent fuel rods stored in on-site cooling ponds. Lacking a permanent spent nuclear fuel storage facility, so-called "temporary" nuclear fuel containment ponds are features common to nearly all nuclear reactor facilities. They typically contain the accumulated spent fuel from 10 or more decommissioned reactor cores. Due to lack of a permanent repository, most of these fuel containment ponds are greatly overloaded and tightly packed beyond original design. They are generally surrounded by common light industrial buildings, with concrete walls and corrugated steel roofs. Unlike the active reactor cores, which are encased inside massive "containment vessels" with thick walls of concrete and steel, the buildings surrounding spent fuel rod storage ponds would do practically nothing to contain radioactive contaminants in the event of prolonged cooling system failures.

Since spent fuel ponds typically hold far greater quantities of highly radioactive material then the active nuclear reactors, they present far greater potential for the catastrophic spread of highly radioactive contaminants over huge swaths of land, polluting the environment for hundreds of years. A study by the NRC determined that the "boil-down time" for spent fuel rod containment ponds runs from between four and 22 days after loss of cooling system power before degenerating into a Fukushima-like situation, depending upon the type of nuclear reactor and how recently its latest batch of fuel rods had been decommissioned.

Reactor fuel rods have a protective zirconium cladding, which if superheated while exposed to air will burn with intense self-generating heat, much like a magnesium fire, releasing highly radioactive aerosols and smoke. According to Arnie Gundersen -- former senior vice-president for Nuclear Engineering Services Corporation, now turned nuclear whistleblower -- once a zirconium fire has started, due to its extreme temperatures and high degree of reactivity, contact with water will result in the water dissociating into hydrogen and oxygen gases, which will almost certainly lead to violent explosions. Gundersen says that once a zirconium fuel rod fire has started, the worst thing you could do is to try to quench the fire with water streams. Gundersen believes the massive explosion that blew the roof off the spent fuel pond at Fukushima was caused by zirconium-induced hydrogen dissociation.

Had it not been for heroic efforts on the part of Japan's nuclear workers to replenish waters in the spent fuel pool at Fukushima, those spent fuel rods would have melted down and ignited their zirconium cladding, which most likely would have released far more radioactive contamination than what came from the three reactor core meltdowns. Japanese officials estimate that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster has already released into the local environment just over half the total radioactive contamination as was released by Chernobyl, but other sources estimate it could be significantly more. 

Preventing Disaster

Electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) and solar super storms are two different, but related, categories of events that are often described as high-impact, low frequency (HILF) events. Events categorized as HILF don't happen very often, but if and when they do they have the potential to severely affect the lives of millions of people. The congressionally mandated EMP Commission has studied the threat of both extreme GMD events and EMP attack using a high-altitude nuclear detonation, and made specific recommendations to the US Congress for implementing protective devices and procedures to ensure the survival of the grid and other critical infrastructures in either event.

John Kappenman, author of the Metatech study, estimates that it would cost on the order of $1 billion to build special protective devices into the US grid to protect its EHV transformers from EMP or extreme GMD damage, and to build stores of critical replacement parts should some of these items be damaged or destroyed. Kappenman estimates that it would cost significantly less than $1 billion to store at least a year's worth of diesel fuel for backup generators at each US nuclear facility and to store sets of critical spare parts, such as backup generators, inside EMP-hardened steel containers to be available for quick change-out in the event that any of these items were damaged by an EMP or GMD.

For the cost of a single B-2 bomber or a tiny fraction of the TARP bank bailout, we could invest in preventative measures to avert what might well be a major disaster. There is no way to protect against all possible effects from an extreme GMD or an EMP attack, but certainly we could implement measures to protect against the worst effects. Since 2008, Congress has narrowly failed to pass legislation that would implement at least some of the EMP Commission's recommendations.

We have a long way to go to make our world safe from extreme GMD or EMP. Every citizen can do their part to push for legislation to move towards this goal, and to work inside our homes and communities to develop local resilience and self-reliance, so that in the event of a long-term grid-down scenario, we might make the most of a bad situation. The same tools that are espoused by the "transition" movement for developing local self-reliance and resilience to help cope with the twin effects of climate change and peak oil could also serve communities well in the event of an EMP attack or extreme GMD.

For more information, or to get involved, see EMPACT America, Survive-emp.com or Transition Network or Contact your congressman.

Matthew Stein is a design engineer, green builder and author of "When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide to Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival" and "When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency," both published by Chelsea Green.
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