Solar Storms Threaten Global Nuclear Nightmare

An eruption on April 16, 2012 was captured here by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory in the 304 Angstrom wavelength, which is typically colored in red. The venet on 23 July 2012 was even more powerful than this. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA

This solar eruption on April 16, 2012 was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft. The near-miss event on 23 July 2012 was even more powerful. Extreme solar storms can bring down power grids, knock out communications, crash the internet and cause worldwide chaos and disruption – worse, they can also disable the cooling systems on nuclear reactors.  Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA

Nuclear Reactors Worldwide Are At Risk From A Solar Super Storm That Could Disable Cooling Systems And Emergency Back-Ups Causing Meltdowns And Explosions

Our planet came within a whisker of disaster two years ago.

On 23 July 2012, an eruption exploded on the face of the sun blasting a stream of material into space that narrowly missed our planet. Had this event happened just one week earlier then Earth would have been directly in the line of fire and, as one expert put it, “we would still be picking up the pieces”.

Indeed, if it had hit Earth then it is conceivable that you might not be reading this now. The 2012 solar storm fired billions of tonnes of material into space in two separate bursts around 15 minutes apart. The high speed star stuff, in the form of electrically charged sub-atomic particles, tore through space at 3,000 kilometers per second, crossing the Earth’s orbit some 18 hours later.

If this blast wave of magnetised plasma from the sun, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), had hit our planet head-on, then it would have ripped through Earth’s magnetic field causing a geomagnetic storm that would have twisted and buckled the planet’s magnetic field, frying electrical components including the powerful transformers that keep our power grids running. Widespread damage to heavy equipment such as transformers across much of the industrialised world would have taken years to fully repair.

“Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps,” states NASA in a report published last month on the 2012 near-miss. According to a study by the US National Academy of Sciences, the total economic impact to the US alone of a solar storm of the size of the 2012 event would exceed $2 trillion – or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina.

Geomagnetic storm

“Had the event hit the Earth, it would have produced a record geomagnetic storm,” reported an international team of space scientists in a paper published in Nature Communications earlier this year. The event was at least twice as powerful as the most severe geomagnetic storm that has hit Earth during the space age which led to the collapse of a power grid in Canada leaving 6 million people without electricity on 13 March 1989. There have been others. A much smaller solar storm in 2003 interrupted the operation of satellites and caused the GPS system used by airlines to go offline for approximately a day. Records from solar storms in 1921 and 1960 describe widespread radio disruption and impacts upon railway signalling and switching systems.

Solar storms begin with an explosion, or solar flare, on the surface of the sun. The X-rays and extreme ultraviolet radiation from the flare reach the Earth’s orbit eight minutes later – travelling at light speed. These can ionize the upper layers of our atmosphere causing radio blackouts and GPS satellite navigation errors. A short time later, a wave of energetic particles, electrons and protons accelerated by the blast, and moving only slightly slower than light itself, cross the orbit of the Earth. These can electrify satellites and damage their electronics. Then come the CMEs, the billion-tonne clouds of magnetized plasma blasted out by the flare that take a day or more to cross space and reach us. These are what do the real damage.

Severe geomagnetic storms caused by CMEs can induce large currents through the conducting wires in electrical systems such as power grids, pipelines and signalling circuits. High levels of geomagnetically induced currents can damage transmission, distribution and generation equipment in electricity networks, potentially leading to power failure, according to the UK government’s National Risk Register. It was this effect that took out the Hydro-Quebec power grid in Canada in 1989.

In 1859, Earth was blasted by a series of powerful CMEs that were ejected by the sun. This was called the Carrington Event after the English amateur astronomer Richard Carrington who saw the solar flare that started the trouble. The event caused auroras in the sky that were seen in Cuba and disrupted the early telegraph systems that were in use at the time.

In a few seconds, the modern digital economy would be thrown back 100 years

But today’s world is reliant on more sophisticated – and much more vulnerable – technology than the Victorian telegraph. A similar storm today would have a far more catastrophic impact. Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US estimated that “major geomagnetic storms, such as those that occurred in 1859 and 1921 occur approximately once every one hundred years. Storms of this type are global events that can last for days and will likely have an effect on electrical networks world wide.”

In 2013 a team of scientists met to discuss the risks of such extreme solar storms in a group called Solar Max. They imagined what would happen if Earth was hit by a powerful Carrington-like CME today. They wrote that if such a massive solar storm slams into the unprepared Earth it would destroy thousands of transformers, knock out 75 per cent of all satellites and damage vulnerable electronics such as car computers and cell phones.

“It will take a year to repair the damage, worsened by communication and transportation failures. Millions of people in northern latitudes lose heating, water and food supply. Hospitals struggle to care for the sick and elderly without electricity and supplies. Food riots break out and economies collapse. In a few seconds, the modern digital economy is thrown back 100 years,” state the SolarMAX group.

Scary stuff. But that is not the worst that could happen: there is a risk of nuclear disaster.

Britain’s Office for Nuclear Regulation recognises the danger from solar flares which it highlights as a hazard to reactor safety, stating: “Coronal mass ejections and solar flares could have the potential to result in loss of electricity grid, damage to onsite transformers, site instrumentation and electrical equipment, individually or in combination”. That does not sound too serious until your remember that nuclear reactors need to be kept cool and that the cooling systems are electrical.

The solar storm that hit Quebec in 1989 resulted in the the Gentilly-2 nuclear power plant, located in Bécancour, Québec, losing the regular grid power which fed its reactor cooling systems, according to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Fortunately, the standby generators automatically started as planned and there was no nuclear accident.

Nuclear threat

But these nuclear standby generators do not always work, as we discovered in 2011 when tsunami damage to the Fukushima power plant in Japan destroyed the emergency back up cooling systems and resulted in nuclear melt downs in three of the plant’s six reactors. Japanese nuclear engineers are still struggling to get the site under control.

The threat of nuclear disaster due to a solar storm has been recognised by academics. A paper on space weather and nuclear safety by three experts, based on a seminar presentation delivered at Kuvempu University in India in 2011, states “ nuclear reactors and their spent fuel pools (SFP) require electricity for their safety related pumps. The reactor cores and SFPs need to be cooled even when the plants are offline… When there is no offsite power and the generators are unavailable – a condition known as station blackout – the reactors and SFPs will experience meltdowns and explosions. All major nuclear events happened because of loss of coolant.”

According to International Atomic Energy Authority data from March this year there were 435 nuclear power stations in the world with a further 72 under construction; this excludes various research and military installations. They are all potentially vulnerable to an extreme solar storm and it is by no means clear that any of them are fully immune to the effects of a large CME event.

Dozens of Chernobyls and Fukushimas

Imagine, then, the impact of a Carrington-like repeated geomagnetic battering from multiple CMEs over several days that shuts down the vital electrical cooling systems in many nuclear reactors just as the tsunami did at Fukushima. The danger would be that this standby equipment not only goes offline but is badly damaged and is unable to start up again afterwards and that the wider power grids do not come back quickly. And even if the generators were not badly damaged and did start up there is a further danger that there could be an interruption to the delivery of the vital fuel supplies needed to keep them running until grid supplies could be restored.

In such a scenario, engineers would find it impossible to keep their reactor cores and spent fuel rods cool in the days and perhaps weeks following the geomagnetic storm when power grids are down. In this way, an extreme solar storm could result in near simultaneous melt downs, core fires and explosions at multiple nuclear sites across the world creating many plumes of dangerous radioactive smoke. In short: dozens of Chernobyls and Fukushimas. This would be in addition to the chaos the solar storm would have wrought to power, communications and transport infrastructure as well as to water and food supplies… A nightmare scenario with real Armageddon potential.

And just in case you think this solar storm stuff sounds like science fiction and is all rather unlikely to happen for real, physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. has analysed records of solar storms going back more than 50 years for a scientific paper published in 2012 and he calculated the odds that a Carrington-class storm would hit Earth in a any ten year period at around 12%.

Which, looking on the bright side, means there’s an 88 per cent chance there will be no solar storm nuclear Armageddon by 2025.

Would you take those odds?

Sources

NASA report on the solar super storm near miss of 2012 here.

NASA video on the 2012 near miss here.

Nature Communications paper on the 2012 event here.

Space Weather paper on probability of large solar storm events here.

Paper based on conference presentation on space weather anomalies, power grid collapse and nuclear safety which discusses the potential damage that solar storms would cause to nuclear power stations here.

SolarMax executive summary presentation including the 2015 scenario here.

SolarMax full report here.

ORNL, 2010 (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), “Electromagnetic Pulse: Effects on the U.S. Power Grid” here.

UK National Risk register here.

Canadian Nuclear safety Commission fact sheet here.

Britain’s Office for Nuclear regulation report on external hazards here.

US NAS report here.

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