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Flare-up: How the Sun Could Put an End to Nuclear Power

Solar energy may soon eclipse nuclear power – only not in the way we hoped. According to NASA, the planet will soon face an outbreak of powerful solar flares capable of collapsing global power grids. Were this to happen, the world’s nuclear reactors could be left to run wild, overheat, melt, and explode.

The sun’s magnetic cycle peaks every 22 years while sunspot activity crests every 11 years. Both events are set to peak in 2013. Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) trigger geomagnetic disturbances (GMDs) – tides of high-energy particles that can disrupt power lines. Since the 1970s, the array of high-voltage transmission lines spanning the US has grown tenfold. NASA warns these interconnected networks can be energized by a solar flare, causing “an avalanche of blackouts carried across continents [that] … could last for weeks to months.” A National Academy of Sciences report estimates a “century-class” solar storm could cause 20 times the damage as Hurricane Katrina while “full recovery could take four to ten years.”

There have been two massive CMEs over the past 153 years. The 1859 “Carrington Event” irradiated Earth for nine days, causing the Northern Lights to erupt over Hawai’i. On May 14, 1921, a GMD lit up northern skies as far south as Puerto Rico. Both flares disrupted telegraph communication around the world.

But nineteenth- and twentieth-century telegraph systems were more resilient than today’s electronics. Solar flares can bake the circuitry that controls aircraft, banking, GPS, radio, TV broadcasts, iPods, and the Internet. As NASA solar physicist Lika Guhathakurta put it: “A similar storm today might knock us for a loop.”

On March 13, 1989, a 90-second solar blast slapped HydroQuebec’s transmission system and left six million Canadians without electricity for nine hours. The storm cooked transformers in Great Britain and triggered 200 “anomalies” at oil-, coal-, and nuclear-fueled facilities across the US.

A Carrington-sized GMD could damage thousands of extra high voltage (EHV) transformers around the world. These transformers can weigh up to 300 tons and cost more than $1 million. Power grids cannot operate without them. Because each is custom-built to regional specifications, procuring new EHVs can take up to three years. Rebuilding a damaged grid could take decades. That could be the best-case scenario. More worrisome is imagining what would happen to nuclear power plants that are reliant on electrical grids.

A 2011 Oak Ridge National Laboratory report warned of a 33 percent likelihood that a solar flare could lead to “long-term power loss” over a nuclear reactor’s life. With 440 nuclear power plants in 30 countries, and 250 research reactors, there are nearly 700 potential Fukushimas waiting to be unleashed.

Faced with a grid collapse, nuclear plants must rely on backup power to cool reactor cores and spent-fuel ponds. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires only eight hours of battery power and enough fuel to run emergency generators for a week. Restoring outside power to Fukushima’s damaged reactors was a daunting task even when Japan had a functioning grid to fall back on. If the Sun sends a geomagnetic tsunami sweeping across Earth, it could become impossible to provide any form of traditional power.

What You Can Do: Ask Congress to pass the Solar Shield Bill (H.R.668).

NASA has proposed a “Solar Shield” to detect incoming CMEs and warn operators to shut down the grid until the danger passes. Unfortunately, the plan has never been field-tested. The US could protect its grid by spending around $1 billion to “harden” 350 key EHV transformers and stock blast-proof warehouses with replacement parts. Transformers could be protected with ground resistors. Costing about $40,000 each, they could be installed on 5,000 critical transformers for less than $200 million – about one-tenth the cost of a B-2 bomber.

In August 2010, the US House of Representatives unanimously approved HR 5026, a bill that would have protected the grid against geomagnetic storms. But the Senate failed to act. Last June, the US and UK announced plans to mandate “controlled power cuts” to protect the grid – but that’s only two countries. Until every nuclear nation is prepared for grid collapse, the potential cascade of core meltdowns could mark the end of the industrialized world as we know it.

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal.


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KeytoClearSkys is an internet troll who quotes Peggy Gruber, another troll. Both repeat false information believing lies that are repeated will be believed.

Distortions, half-truths and false accusations of fraud are their stock-in-trade.

By Mark Goldes on Sun, September 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Because the energy industry can afford so many ghost written pieces, they are then able to refer to each other. This gives all of them “credibility by repetition” so taking a different stand or even bringing up something new immediately labels the writer as Anti-Industry, which is one of the reasons that these same Industries are now having trouble.  If whistleblowers concerned about safety are being retaliated against (I know some), then what does that indicate about the industry and their claim of putting safety first, especially when the ratepayers are the one that ultimately foot the bill for all safety upgrades?

I suggest that Earth Island post an update to this article, to restart a new discussion and/or begin a petition to get a Bill past in Congress that will at least protect the US grid and our critical safety infrastructure!

Here is another similar article:
Solar storm could leave Britain without power ‘for months’

By CaptD on Sun, August 18, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Nitro 25 has an Idea here is an adition   already hardened thermo nuclear generators upscaled from the type used by space craft . Use on site to provide cooling for reactors and the even more dangerous , and much larger spent fuel ponds ,  can last for many years before Re- building is required used to power the cooling systems   they dont require transport to supply fuel , that may not be there the roads and power stucture may be totally jammed with dead vehicles another point .  The Helious   study satelites,much closer to the sun can provide advanced warning,  so the grid can be protected. Vulnerable facities can be put into an emergency cooling mode and once cooled will only require maintenance cooling much less power needed. mitigation is cheap , compared to the un protected outcome

By james jordan on Sun, December 09, 2012 at 10:26 am

The real worry I think, is what are 3rd world countires requirements for plant backup power and backup plans incase there is a flare that knocks out the grid

By Mike on Sat, December 08, 2012 at 7:16 am

Shortsighted, ignorant politicians will be the death of us. 
There must be some weird psychopathology at work here.  Because how is it better to spend trillions waging war and ‘securing the homeland’ than spending millions safeguarding our infrastructure and preparing for the very real possibility of this type of CME scenerio? Or maybe they don’t want to scare people so they do nothing?  Better to just let civilization collapse than prepare for the worse, I guess.

By Lucius on Tue, March 27, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Excellent post.

For additional information, including what might be done to minimize the impact, see

By Mark Goldes on Fri, March 02, 2012 at 11:20 pm

I liked the Book Preppers Road March which tells a fictional tale about surviving after a solar storm takes the grid out

By displaced1 on Thu, March 01, 2012 at 7:04 pm

past time to get going on thorium reactors they wont melt down with any where near the danger of the uranium plants . fuel is plentiful Oak Ridge had one design that was passed up by the folks who wanted nuclear wepons If we had done this in the 60’s the world would be a safer place

By james jordan on Thu, March 01, 2012 at 4:43 pm

The problem is not EMP one , the problem is a gravitic one from aproaching hi density object , probably super massive black hole at 24,000LY from earth or less , it brings down the isotope kilogram quantity needed for critical mass and all worlds reactors can go fukushima alike as can go critical with no warning influenced by aproaching hyper gravitic mass object ....

Nasa   As allways lies to the hilt ....

By Hector D Perez on Thu, March 01, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Why not build custom EMP Shielded Mobil Generators on 45’ Semi trailers large enough to run critical emergency services at the nuke plants. Station these generators at the closest regional airport where fuel is in ready supply. Retrograde two 8,000 Gal fuel tankers per generator unit by eliminating the computer controlled “Engine Management System” so as to insure these rigs would run; and make them support vehicles. One fuel rig would be deployed initially with the Gen/Rig, and the other would be fueled and be on standby to relieve the first tanker when it requires refueling. Now I don’t know about the power requirements needed to run emergency cooling pumps at a nuke plant, but I’ve seen smaller units than what could be built on a semi chassis power entire towns in the Bahamas. And through private contractors here domestically we could put Americans to work, and be very cost effective.

Just don’t offshore the contracts…lets do something by ourselves for a change!

By Nitro25 on Thu, March 01, 2012 at 7:11 am

This is not news. It just goes to show how unprepared we are with our broken government

By Daniel Thorne on Thu, March 01, 2012 at 5:57 am

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