Failure to harden electrical structures and spent nuclear fuel storage leaves U.S., global population vulnerable to solar or terrorist induced apocalypse
News & Analysis
Snaking across the face of the Sun right now is a million miles long filament made up of massive clouds of plasma, NASA revealed October 3. It’s part of the “solar maximum” in its 11-year cycle.
The filament, barely a month old, probably will tear off the Sun from one end to the other like a giant flaming zipper in a spectacular coronal mass ejection, or CME. Billions of tons of plasma will blast off our closest star at millions of miles per hour. Pity anything that gets in its way.
Should the serpentine CME hit Earth head-on, the consequences would be catastrophic. Electrical grids across the globe would crash and with them life on this planet as we know it.
In late July, NASA confirmed that a full CME would knock America and the world back into the Dark Ages. One related U.S. government study put the mortality rate in the United States at 90 percent in the first year in such an event. The odds of such a CME in the next decade are an astounding 12 percent, which is about the same as the chances of a major earthquake long overdue to hammer Southern California.
Less than a month after the NASA statement, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rubber stamped new rules that will allow electrically run spent nuclear reactor fuel rods to be stored in spent fuel ponds indefinitely. The NRC dismissed any chance of fiasco, let alone a longtime crashing of the grid, multiple nuclear meltdowns and spent fuel pools (SFPs) catching fire.
Instead, the U.S. government codified policy that ensures that nuclear catastrophe awaits the country, and the world, if nuclear power plants and SFPs aren’t protected from the inevitable CME that will toast the nation’s and planet’s infrastructures.
Massive amounts of radiation would spew into the air and water fouling the land and triggering a never ending nuclear nightmare. People and advanced mammals not killed outright by societal breakdown and mass disorder would face fallout far fiercer than anything put out by the ongoing triple meltdowns at Fukushima Japan.
Besides mass radiation poisoning, genetic mutations would be introduced in the DNA of fauna and flora of all types, the most evolved mammals being the most susceptible. The impact of a massive CME won’t just affect the nuclear reactors and SFPs in the United States, but worldwide where more than three quarters of them are situated.
Yet as daunting as the challenge is, the cost of fixing electric grid infrastructural weaknesses and beefing up replacement transformers fried by the CME in the U.S. would be $2 billion, which per person is roughly the price of half a pack of cigarettes in New York City, $6.27.
Of course, the crucial additional cost of safely storing spent nuclear fuel will be more but not by much, $3.8 billion or $11.28 per American. That would involve moving spent rods from the SFPs to “dry casks” which can keep the toxic tubes air-cooled for up to twenty years with no electricity needed. Each dry cask can hold about a metric ton of fuel assemblies and costs about $1 million each.
All told, the cost per capita to fortify the electric grid in the United States, and to expedite movement of spent nuclear fuel rods to electricity-free dry casks domestically, would be $17.55, or less than the price of a small White Pizza at America’s oldest licensed pizzeria in lower Manhattan, Lombardi’s Pizza.
Don’t expect to see that estimated $5.8 billion budgeted anytime soon. A higher priority for the Obama Administration is to spend $355 billion over the next decade to overhaul nuclear weapons systems that can, in all practicality, never be used. It’s part of a trillion dollar initiative over 30 years.
While ensuring our very existence is priceless, even at these mouthwatering prices, EnviroReporter.com has uncovered a pattern of insipient stupidity that has made it virtually impossible for anything to remedy the dangers exposed herein. Serious discussion of these issues, based on sound science, isn’t taken seriously and gets lost in a blizzard of half-baked denunciations, and defenses of, nuclear power.
There is no room or willpower to address a very certain natural event that will destroy the country, and world, if nothing is done. The public is largely disinterested in things hard to understand and deemed unlikely to happen. Coronal mass ejections, grid collapse and radioactive nightmare don’t generally register. It’s easier to surf Facebook and forget about it.
Lights Up Over Broadway
Before the world revolved around electricity, even before the American Civil War, the main effects of a massive CME strike was the beauty it created along with compasses that no longer read right. The skies over New York City lit up with undulating waves of rainbow sherbet-shaded lights in the first week of September 1859. The phenomena painted the heavens so bright with luminous red, purple and green auroras that newspapers could be read at midnight.
What hit Manhattan 155 years ago caused Northern Lights to pulsate as far south as Hawaii, El Salvador and Cuba. This solar storm was the largest recorded CME ever.
Known as the “Carrington Event”, the CME exploded with the force of ten billion Hiroshima bombs blasting over two billion tons of charged particles at 6.7 million miles per hour. It fried 200,000 miles of the telegraph wire with a huge surge of electricity that set telegraphs on fire.
Other major CME’s, though not as powerful as the 1859 Carrington Event, include the “Great Geomagnetic Storm” during May 14-15, 1921 and the March 1989 Quebec blackout that took down the Canadian province’s grid in less than two minutes.
We experienced more solar unrest last month on September 9 and 10 when two coronal mass ejections blasted out of the Sun and bore down on the Earth at over 1.5 million of miles per hour. The CME’s missed hitting the planet dead on – but just barely.
Instead of crashing electrical grids across the globe, the September CME relatively glanced off the northern part of the globe. The result was a display of the Northern Lights as far south as an arc in the United States as “low as Pennsylvania to Iowa to Oregon” according to the Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA ranked this solar storm “G3-Strong.”
One Week from Extinction
Two years ago, we really got lucky. Americans found out from NASA this summer that in July 2012, Earth missed by a week being hit head on by the largest solar storm ever recorded, nearly 60 percent more powerful than the Carrington Event. It would have been lights out, literally and figuratively.
“If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” said Professor Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado in NASA’s article Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm of July 2012. “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.”
An American solar observatory in orbit, STEREO-A, was able to capture the solar storm’s eruption and analyze its eruptive power without damage as it was constructed for such an event. The odds of another humongous CME blast hitting Earth straight on in the next decade are a whopping 12 percent according to a physicist cited in the NASA piece.
The catastrophic results of such a magnetic storm, where most electrical systems on the planet would be destroyed, would plunge the world into chaos, deprivation, violence and starvation. An April 2008 congressional committee report investigated an event which would have effects similar to a CME – an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. In the Report of the Commission the impact of to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack: Critical National Infrastructures, 90 percent of the American population would be dead within a year.
And if that doesn’t drive home the seriousness of the threat, your smart phone won’t work as well. Not much else either will for years, even decades, meaning diseases and famine will unfold fairly quickly as medicines sour without refrigeration and the computerized food distribution systems disappear on blank screens everywhere. Your electronically-controlled money won’t pop out of an ATM even if you could prove what you own if it evaporates in a mirage of data bits. Stores wouldn’t be able to process transactions so your plastic cards would be useless anyway. There would be no way to buy food or fuel or even know what’s going on via the Internet which would be down for as long as the grid was.
What NASA’s article on the 2012 near-miss didn’t take into account was that over 100 nuclear reactors in America would also melt down as a result of a CME bull’s-eye hit of Earth. After the scant emergency fuel generators and batteries at these sites give out, nuclear reactor cores overheating and melting wouldn’t be the only nuclear nightmare that would unfold.
Even with the low blow-out pizza prices that it would take, per capita, to remedy America’s vulnerable electric grid and expedite dry casking spent nuclear fuel rods, active nuclear reactor cores would remain vulnerable. Removing the active rods threat means scrapping nuclear power entirely, which would be hugely expensive and politically impossible with the current industry-influenced government.
The estimate of the extraordinarily high cost of canning nuclear plants once and for all is exorbitant. The price of decommissioning the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) will be $4.4 billion according to a September 23 plan submitted to the NRC by majority owner of the plant, Southern California Edison.
There are “62 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 100 nuclear reactors in 31 states in the United States,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Extrapolating the SONGS expense to extend to shutting down and demolishing all of these plants would leave taxpayers with a $272.8 billion bill. Internationally, the cost would exceed $1 trillion at these prices which doesn’t include the cost of lost power generation.
America’s nuclear power industry isn’t about to shut down anytime soon so this aspect of securing the population against CME-induced meltdowns is still unsolved. Rods pulled from a reactor need at least five years in a SFP before they are cool enough to transfer into a dry cask.
Nevertheless, the amount of radiation in SFPs dwarfs that in active rods still producing power in operating reactors. That safeguarding spent fuel rods through expedited dry casking would cost but $3.8 billion is hugely important because it’s relatively cheap and SFPs are far more dangerous and radioactive than nuclear reactor cores themselves.
There are fewer government rules mandating adequate backup power for SFPs which make them incredibly perilous especially when the Big One CME scorches Earth with billions of tons of Sun plasma. The crucial radiation water buffers and heat diffusers risk becoming burning pools.
Once the power was cut off and emergency generator fuel exhausted, spent fuel pools would cease circulating with cool fresh water and within a matter of days begin to boil off the liquid. Once the tops of the nuclear fuel rods were exposed to the air, radiation would become so intense that no one could approach the impending infernos. Once the rods’ zirconium cladding inevitably caught fire, nothing would be able to put out the radiation blaze.
Millions of tons of highly radioactive fuel and spent fuel releasing unmitigated radiation into the environment suggests mortality rates in the United States approaching 100 percent, a figure that would be matched worldwide as enormous amounts of lethal radionuclides like cesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium-239/240 spew into the air, rain, soil and sea.
Yet barely a month after NASA released its sobering report, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government agency in charge of insuring that America’s nuclear power plants are safe, signed off on a plan that will leave spent fuel pools essentially in place permanently, rather than speeding up plans to move cooled spent nuclear fuel rods into dry casks.
These spent fuel pools aren’t just susceptible to catastrophic failure due to solar activity; they are lightly protected sitting ducks as EnviroReporter.com exposed in Black Swan SONGS.
But not only did the NRC blindly ignore the cautionary NASA CME report, it has ignored man-made magnetic threats with destructive results identical to those threatened by CME’s, electromagnetic pulses or EMPs.
Long considered a major threat, an EMP could overload a vast area of America if a terrorist group or a rogue state could manage to detonate a nuclear device over the country using rockets as relatively simple as Scuds. Such an attack leveled at the U.S. could be more deadly than nuking a city. A nuclear magnetic pulse or high altitude magnetic pulse would cause voltage surges that would blow the electrical grid much like a coronal mass ejection.
The NRC decision to leave lightly protected spent fuel pools as is for its stated periods of 60, 140 and 240 years up to and including indefinitely assures an avoidable catastrophe. It ignores intelligence that revealed that an EMP nuclear war strategy is foremost with the Chinese and Russian militaries. Yet the NRC hears and sees no evil.
Instead the NRC blew off the threat of something extraordinary even happening to the hundreds of spent fuel pools across the U.S. in the footnotes of its recent decision saying it was “so unlikely that it is a remote and speculative occurrence.”
A twelve percent chance in the next ten years of a Carrington Event-level CME is anything but “remote and speculative.” What is remote and speculative is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s take on reality.
“In the wake of the Japanese reactor problems, there has been much attention given to the question of how a solar storm-driven power grid failure might affect North American nuclear plants,” Prof. Baker told EnviroReporter.com August 28. “This is a very important issue.”
Scientists postulate that a Carrington Event-level CME smashes into Earth about every 150 years. By that measure, we are already due. Even with that relative certainty – and it is certain – looking for solutions has been illusory.
“Yes, safeguarding nuclear reactors and other key components of our society’s infrastructure should be a huge priority for US policy makers,” Baker told EnviroReporter.com. “We have been trying in every way we can to get these issues elevated to a proper level of attention. I and my colleagues try to avoid the “Chicken Little” Syndrome, but also want to make sure people understand how important this issue really is.”
Of course even if the United States government took the threat of CME’s and EMP’s seriously enough to make it a national priority to armor plate the electric grid immediately, hundreds of nuclear plants globally, and their associated spent fuel pools, would remain vulnerable to catastrophic failure. The odds of getting the 31 countries worldwide that have nuclear reactors to fortify their national electric grids against CME catastrophe is probably near zero.
The EnviroReporter.com investigation Fukushima – The Perfect Crime? exposed how media and public reactions to the ongoing triple meltdowns in Japan have been treated with derision and disbelief, leading to a completely lackadaisical reaction to one of the greatest environmental catastrophes ever caused by humans.
It is likely that the multitude of warnings about the impending nuclear holocaust that could be triggered by a CME or EMP will be greeted with similar incredulous disdain. No matter. Previous studies bear the burden of proof and calm reasoned logic portends a very hot and nasty time in store for planet Earth in just a blink of geologic time. Humanity, and indeed all mammals, stand in the crosshairs of the gun mankind has built all about the globe and aimed at itself.
Lights Out in The City that Never Sleeps
When the inevitable coronal mass ejection fires up the New York City skyline plunging the Big Apple into darkness, it will be just a matter of time before the two reactors at the Indian Point Energy Center, 38 miles north of Manhattan, begin to melt down and their spent fuel pools boil off and catch fire.
New York City is the second most populated metropolitan area in the world after Tokyo, Japan. Over 23.5 million work and live with 50 miles of Indian Point.
In The Unforgettable Fire, EnviroReporter.com showed how the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Dai-ichi’s Unit 4 could collapse, destroying Tokyo in the process. Just one spent fuel pool crashing to the ground could, in this case, make Tokyo and the middle third of Japan uninhabitable for humans and other mammals.
Indian Point has three spent fuel pools packed tight with highly radioactive spent fuel rods. Its catastrophic failure could unleash far more misery than Fukushima’s Unit 4 SFP.
Assessing Indian Point’s potential to make New York City and its surrounding area a potential hot zone has already been done in a September 2004 report by Edwin S. Lyman, PhD, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. In his study, Chernobyl on the Hudson? The Health and Economic Impacts of a Terrorist Attack at the Indian Point Nuclear Plant, Lyman investigated the consequences if one of the two reactors were wrecked causing a full meltdown.
“We find that, depending on the weather conditions, an attack could result in as many as 44,000 near-term deaths from acute radiation syndrome or as many as 518,000 long-term deaths from cancer among individuals within fifty miles of the plant,” Lyman wrote. “These findings confirm that Indian Point poses a severe threat to the entire New York metropolitan area.”
Lyman’s report cites a Sandia National Laboratories’ 1982 study positing that a single core meltdown at Indian Point could cause 50,000 “near-term deaths from acute radiation syndrome.” Logically, if both cores melted down, that figure would double to 100,000 near-term deaths from anywhere from ground zero at the plant itself “as far as 60 miles away in the worst case evaluated.”
“The economic damages within 100 miles would exceed $1.1 trillion for the 95th percentile case, and could be as great as $2.1 trillion for the worst case evaluated, based on Environmental Protection Agency guidance for population relocation and cleanup,” the report concluded. “Millions of people would require permanent relocation.”
Of course this is based on one Indian Point reactor being successfully destroyed and melting down with none of the spent fuel pools on fire. The next Carrington Event-level CME or an EMP strike would take out both reactors and all three spent fuel pools. The cost in lives and capital exceeds any of the previous estimates many times over.
Indian Point’s spent fuel pools are reportedly built into bedrock and not above ground which probably makes them much better adapted to seismic events. The pools are 40-feet-deep and are submerged under 27 feet of constantly circulating water designed to absorb the residual heat of the rods and create an aqueous buffer to the spent fuel’s radiation.
Indian Point is powered by pressurized water reactors (PWRs). A PWR core can have 193 fuel assemblies made of 50,000 fuel rods packed with 18 million enriched uranium dioxide pellets. The plant on the Hudson River has 2,073 highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies according to the March 31, 2011 DOE report Inventory and Description of Commercial Reactor Fuels within the United States.
In comparison, the SFP of Unit 4 of the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in Japan contains less spent fuel than Indian Point with up to 1,500 spent and active fuel assemblies tottering 100 feet off the ground. Though containing just 72 percent of Indian Point’s SFPs, Unit 4’s collapse has been predicted by varied sources as being the death knell for the top third of Japan.
The total inventory of Indian Point’s active and spent fuel calculated by EnviroReporter.com comes to approximately 12.7 nuclear reactor cores worth of extremely hot rods. The nuclear power plant less than 40 miles from Manhattan has four diesel generators for each reactor as backup power. The NRC, operating from the belief that sustained electric grid collapse isn’t even in the stars, let alone the Sun, requires that only one week’s worth of fuel for the generators be kept on hand at reactors like Indian Point.
So all bets are off when the next massive coronal mass ejection envelops Earth with its electrical grid-demolishing geomagnetic destructiveness. Even if the four diesel generators for each Indian Point reactor and spent fuel pool worked after the CME passed, the massive blackout would cause total disruption making the refueling of these generators indefinitely next to impossible.
Once the generators gave out, the cores of the two operating Indian Point reactors would be at risk of total meltdown. The three spent fuel pools, which aren’t in a fortified building like the reactors to prevent radiation leaks, would take longer to go critical. The rods would eventually begin to be exposed as the overheating water evaporated.
EnviroReporter.com explored a spent fuel pool catching fire with the October 2013 article SONGS’ Lethal Legacy. A 2007 Nuclear Regulatory Commission report postulated what would happen if just one of the two spent fuel pools at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) cracked after an earthquake and drained. Six hours after the water drained, the exposed rods would catch fire and begin releasing 40 million curies of cesium-137 into the air in the unfortified building.
That is about 150 percent of all the atmospheric nuclear bomb tests from the 1940s to the 1960s all up in flames that water can’t quench as it would explode upon contact with the SONGS spent rods’ melting cladding. The Friends of the Earth advocacy group said in that “[t]he resulting doses to people living within a 10-mile radius would be in the lethal range.”
Now imagine hundreds of times this amount of radiation going up at the same time not only in the United States but around the world on both sides of the equator. That’s The 12 Percent Question. When Earth gets shellacked by a solar storm the size of the 2012 whopper that NASA said missed the planet by a week, hundreds of spent fuel pools like those at Indian Point and SONGS are set to blaze along with their associated reactors which would melt down.
Worldwide there are 437 civilian power nuclear reactors around the world as of August 28 according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Plans for 71 more plants are finalized. Each reactor has a spent fuel pool. The U.S. has the most nuclear reactors of any country, 100 in 65 power plants, mostly in the Midwest and East.
Nearly five million Americans, or about two percent of the population, live within 10 miles of an operating nuclear power plant. Over 111 million people reside within 50 miles of a nuclear reactors and spent fuel pools, fully 36 percent of the population.
The 2011 DOE study said that there was over 77, 161 tons of “used nuclear fuel” in the country three years ago. This amount continues to grow by tons each year with nowhere to put the expanding inventory of now-useless rods so hot they will be dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.
“Over the last few decades of commercial reactor operation has resulted in spent fuel pools that have been reaching capacity,” the report read. “Reracking of the spent fuel pool grids and fuel rod consolidation operations undertaken by the utilities has significantly increased fuel pool capacity at existing reactor fuel pools. However, these activities have only postponed the inevitable situation of having full fuel pools.”
The DOE report included a map showing the locations of “reactor storage pools, independent spent fuel storage installations, federal and other sites.” Most of the nation’s sinister stockpile of useless but highly poisonous spent fuel is stashed east of the Mississippi River. This huge area, coincidentally but fatally nonetheless, is where the greatest complete power grid failure is predicted when the Big Sun One clobbers the planet.
The Congressional Research Service published for members and committees of the U.S. Congress the May 24, 2012 report U.S Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage that broke it down even further. “As of December 2011, more than 67,000 metric tons of SNF [spent nuclear fuel], in more than 174,000 assemblies, is stored at 77 sites (including 4 Department of Energy (DOE) facilities) in the United States located in 35 states,” the CRS report said, “and increases at a rate of roughly 2,000 metric tons per year. Approximately 80% of commercial SNF is stored east of the Mississippi River.”
Illinois led the nation, as of December 31, 2011, with 15 facilities that store 6,900 metric tons of uranium (MTU) termed “wet” in the form of 28,242 “wet assemblies” in electrically-controlled spent fuel pools, according to the CRS. Pennsylvania is second with 4,606 MTU in 20,898 assemblies with third place New York storing 12,466 wet assemblies of extremely radioactive rods of uranium-based fuel weighing 3,082 metric tons.
“A variety of forces or ‘threats’ acting on spent fuel could result in containment being breached, resulting in potential exposures and risks,” the CRS reported, including “loss of power for water supply, circulation, or cooling, which can have significant consequences for SNF in wet pool storage.”
Counterintuitively, spent nuclear fuel is far more radioactive once it is used up. The NRC began several years ago allowing “high burn-up” fuel where the reactor rods are essentially charred atomically to squeeze every usable bit of energy out of them. The resultant high burn-up spent fuel is far hotter and much more radioactive necessitating a longer period of time in vulnerable spent fuel pools.
About three quarters of America’s spent nuclear fuel rods are stored in the electrically-circulated SFP water but, as CRS points out, “wet storage pools become filled to capacity using “dense packing” storage methods, dry storage is increasingly being used, although there are 27 sites with 36 wet storage pools with no current dry cask storage capabilities.”
The NRC published the final “Generic Environmental Impact Statement for Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel” September 10 codifying the what the rule calls “continued storage of spent nuclear fuel beyond the licensed life for operations of a commercial nuclear reactor.” No matter the revelations in an exposé like this, American spent fuel pools will be still operating electrically when the unescapable coronal mass ejection wipes out the world’s electrical grid with plasma shot out of the sun at millions of miles per hour. The American government has had its final say no matter the outrage, which NRC has turned a deaf ear to, whether it comes from environmentalists or U.S. Senators like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California).
Even without considering the threat to America’s nuclear reactors and spent fuel pools from CMEs and EMPs, the August NRC decision to allow spent fuel pools to function as indefinite repositories radioactive rods has enraged nuclear watchdogs. They have long asserted the dangers of nuclear power, especially spent nuclear fuel rods which have no permanent repository anywhere on Earth yet need to be safeguarded and monitored for hundreds of thousands of years.
“Perhaps no issue raises more serious questions of inter-generational ethics than whether we should continue to create such extraordinarily hazardous wastes without a solution to their safe disposal,” wrote nuclear watchdog Daniel Hirsch in comments to the NRC regarding the new rules December 20, 2013. “The plutonium-239 in HLW [high-level waste], for example, is one of the most toxic substances on earth; a few millionths of an ounce if inhaled will cause cancer with virtual 100% statistical certainty. Yet we must find a way to successfully isolate from the environment hundreds of metric tons of plutonium for its hazardous life—about half a million years.” [Original emphasis]
Hirsch, President of Committee to Bridge the Gap, is a veteran nuclear watchdog who was instrumental in shutting down the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Together, with Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles and the Southern California Federation of Scientists, Hirsch made a persuasive argument in 50 Years of Power – 500,000 Years of Radioactive Waste that not only does nuclear power not make sense economically, except for the very few who profit from it, it is immoral to pass its impacts upon the unborn.
“Our society reaps the benefits of these atomic power plants: roughly fifty years of electricity,” Hirsch continued. “But thousands of generations to come may pay the price if even a small fraction of the radioactive waste contaminates water, soil, or air over the time period for which it is dangerous. We get fifty years of power; they get 500,000 years of radioactive waste.”
That anything could go wrong on a grand scale, such as the inevitable grid-wrecking CME, plays no apparent part in government planning for nuclear power plant disaster. It’s as if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has no clue at all as to what NASA has so clearly spelled out: a massive coronal mass ejection is coming and it’s going to destroy modern civilization for the unlucky ten percent of Americans that the government predicts will survive.
In its Waste Confidence Rule report, the “NRC arbitrarily dismisses—in a footnote—the prospect that institutional controls may not be durable and effective over these extraordinary time periods, asserting that loss of institutional controls is “so unlikely that it is a remote and speculative occurrence,”” Hirsch said in the environmental coalition’s comments.
Hirsch also criticized the backup systems that would supposedly protect nuclear reactors and their pools should the power cut out. Backup generators at these complexes aren’t required to keep enough fuel on site to keep power online for extended periods. EnviroReporter.com reported in SONGS’ Lethal Legacy last October that there is a seven day supply of emergency fuel at San Onofre and a few more hours’ worth of juice out of the backup batteries before the spent fuel pools began overheating with killer consequences.
The lunacy of assuming spent fuel pools will be properly maintained for hundreds and thousands of years with nary a hiccup like earthquakes, terrorist attacks or a major CME strike isn’t just stupidity, it is a threat to the national security. Now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has assured that the surviving ten percent of the American population will have hundreds of meltdowns and burning spent nuclear fuel rod pools to contend with.
“The latest iteration of the Waste Confidence Rule relies on a remarkable regulatory fiction: that just leaving large amounts of extraordinarily hazardous and long-lived material sitting on storage pads at numerous locations around the country will not result in unacceptable environmental impacts because institutions will continuously guard, regularly maintain, and periodically repackage the waste for hundreds of years, or even hundreds of thousands of years,” Hirsch concluded. “This seems, to use a favorite phrase of the NRC, “non-credible.””
Nuclear plants around the world churn out more than just tons of high-level radioactive waste yearly that wants for a permanent repository that will be safe for the required hundreds of thousands of years. Atomic power pioneers could not have foreseen that they built high value terrorist targets that if attacked and destroyed would kill scores and ruin the land with radioactivity.
One elemental way to remove the threat is to remove the target. Advocates of using dry casks to store spent nuclear reactor rods have long argued that system is safer than overstuffing spent fuel pools. The NRC’s decision to allow the pools to remain in place indefinitely has crippled any chance of moving the hot rods into dry casks that don’t need electricity to cool as they maintain a stable temperature without power or much human oversight.
But even this solution seems less than ideal. No two dry cask designs are the same as the activists who helped put the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station out of business have recently learned. They are questioning SONGS majority owner Southern California Edison’s decision to spend $400 million on a dry casking system they consider inferior.
SCE has set an ambitious goal of moving its spent fuel rods to dry casks by June 2019. That would sound sensible in light of the array of security concerns EnviroReporter.com exposed in Hit Men for Hot Zones last October. The decision on which dry cask to use is imminent according to SONGS Chief Nuclear Officer, Tom Palmisano, who was before the California Public Utility Commission August 12.
Getting the choice right is crucial to San Clemente residents Donna Gilmore of SanOnofreSafety.org and Gene Stone of Residents Organized for a Safe Environment. They are concerned that SCE will choose either a French or American design for the dry cask’s stainless steel canister walls that are thin.
“Recent information provided by the NRC technical staff indicates dry storage canisters may need to be replaced within 30-42 years or sooner, due to stress corrosion cracking of the thin (1/2 to 5/8 inch) stainless steel canisters (due to our coastal environment),” wrote Gilmore and Stone in an email August 20. “The NRC stated that if one of the canisters becomes defective (e.g. 75% through-wall stress corrosion cracks), there is no way to repair or replace the canister; especially if the spent fuel storage and transfer pools are demolished, as Edison plans to do. And before a canister can be transported (inside a transport cask), the canister must not have cracks.”
The SONGS activists recommend that the fuel rods be inserted in 20 inch thick cast iron German casks and housed in reinforced concrete buildings. Stone and Gilmore advocate no more than 24 fuel assemblies per cask in order to keep their decaying heat down and maintaining an empty spent fuel pool in place to have a functioning workspace to replace casks or canisters.
To their credit, Gilmore and Stone take the issue of nuclear safety seriously at one of the most at-risk sites in the country from earthquakes and terrorist attacks as EnviroReporter.com revealed in Black Swan SONGS in mid-October 2013. Yet it took just a week after the exposé concluded for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to say it planned to terminate its bi-yearly evaluation of SONGS’ emergency procedures after SCE did a final risk assessment of its spent fuel pools. So much for the community input that SCE claims it values so much.
It’s common practice not to evaluate emergency contingencies at nuclear power plants by FEMA once they’ve gone offline said Richard Grundstrom, FEMA’s Technological Hazards branch chief to San Diego’s KPBS Radio News October 24. “The likelihood of it involving a risk beyond the site boundary is pretty small,” Grundstrom said, “and so we don’t do any evaluations of exercises or plans or procedures at those locations anymore.”
FEMA’s failure to understand the threat of any kind of a natural or terrorist disaster at offline nuke plants, like San Onofre, makes a mockery out of government emergency planning, such as it is. Instead, FEMA fell in line with the NRC not even considering the consequences of what NASA has pointed out is going to happen. This is government at its most fatally inept.
However, knowledge of this extinction event-level threat is clearly no path to panacea. Action must be taken with all the muscle a united nation, and world, can muster. The chances of that happening are practically non-existent. No evaluations or exercises are in store for preparing America, let alone the planet, for the certain coronal mass ejection that will slam into Earth.
America may have the most atomic power plants of any nation with 100 nuclear reactors online but that’s just 23 percent of the total worldwide. The 437 operational reactors in 32 countries are on both sides of the Equator but the Northern Hemisphere has by far the most nuclear sites. Seventy new nuclear reactors, and their associated spent fuel pools, are currently under construction around the globe, the largest number in China.
None of these countries have completely hardened their electrical grids against the effects of a major coronal mass ejection pulverizing the planet in solar plasma. Nor have the same system-wide fixes, including having backup transformers in place at key locations throughout the grid, been initiated.
Even progressive countries like Germany, who are weaning themselves off of nuclear power, aren’t protected from the fallout from neighboring fission-friendly France. The Germans may have just nine reactors but the country borders upwind France putting it in the cross-hairs of any French nuclear disasters, CME-caused or not. Italy, which voted to shut down all its reactors decades ago, also borders France and would receive the brunt of French fallout from the Gallic country’s melting reactors and blazing SFPs.
War with the so-called Islamic State means that nations with nuclear plants have to think outside the reactor about what a successful EMP would do to their sites and countries. Much concern has also been raised about foreign fighters trained by ISIS returning to their home countries intent on bringing terror back with them. Nuclear reactors and SFPs are tempting high value targets which, if destroyed, would spread terror far beyond the borders of resultant radioactive contamination.
Doubling down on a visible deterrent with beefed up security at these oft-times vulnerable nuclear power sites should be a national priority at least in the United States. Hardening the target, short of removing it altogether, should be a NRC-mandated order based on this new acknowledged war. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of plutonium.
Former head of the CIA, R. James Woolsey, agrees protecting America’s grid from a hostile EMP attack ought to be a top national priority. Woolsey wrote a forceful and detailed opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal August 12 that laid it out pretty clearly. “What would a successful EMP attack look like?” Woolsey wrote. “The EMP Commission, in 2008, estimated that within 12 months of a nationwide blackout, up to 90% of the U.S. population could possibly perish from starvation, disease and societal breakdown.”
Of course an EMP attack on the United States like the one Woolsey describes would pale in scope compared to the Big One CME but that makes his recommendations no less imperative. America’s role in leading the world would be no better served than facing the menace of a nuke generated electromagnetic pulse or the sun’s plasma by bulletproofing the electrical infrastructure.
“Surge arrestors, faraday cages and other devices that prevent EMP from damaging electronics, as well micro-grids that are inherently less susceptible to EMP, have been used by the Defense Department for more than 50 years to protect crucial military installations and strategic forces,” Woolsey opined. “These can be adapted to protect civilian infrastructure as well. The cost of protecting the national electric grid, according to a 2008 EMP Commission estimate, would be about $2 billion—roughly what the U.S. gives each year in foreign aid to Pakistan.”
While Woolsey’s clarion call to action seems a no-brainer, don’t expect any concrete steps anytime soon. A bipartisan House bill introduced in June 2013 called the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage, or Shield Act, is hung up in the Energy and Commerce Committee. Another bipartisan House bill, the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, has sat without being voted on since October 2013.
With the sun beating down on our necks, and ISIS looking to cut them, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that these bills could save millions of American lives and trillions of dollars. The problem is even our rocket scientists are faring poorly in a country that ranks behind 22 other nations in science and after 29 in math. Many Americans just can’t grasp the threat because it is beyond much mainstream media and an underfunded public science infrastructure to explain it to them clearly.
So where does that leave us? Staring at the Sun with fingers crossed hoping we’re not in the coronal mass ejection crosshairs of solar plasma bearing down on Earth at six million miles per hour. Hoping against the inevitable is a uniquely human trait. In this case, though, the whole planet will pay the price. It will be Earthnocide.
Coronal Mass Extinction
The million mile long filament of plasma twisting and churning across the Sun that NASA reported October 6 will probably not come anywhere near our world. The CME was gauged to be too far east on the face of the Sun to be Earth-directed October 7.
The filament CME was moving at a relatively slow 447,387 miles per hour according to an October 8 bulletin issued by the Space Weather Prediction Center. “It appears narrow and directed well south,” the notice read, “but analysis will continue as more imagery becomes available.”
There will be nothing to prevent us from knowing when the Big Sun CME will, without doubt, wallop Earth. Excellent satellite and telescope monitoring of the Sun worldwide will give the planet about two to three days warning. The same may not be said of an EMP strike by the likes of ISIS or North Korea.
Even with warning, even with preemptively shutting down the electric grid nationally and across the globe, the Sun will come. Transformers will blow as sheets of lime green and fuchsia illuminate solar charged particles collide with gaseous particles in Earth’s atmosphere. The lights will ripple like curtains, arc and shoot up rays that will bath the planet in light from the poles to the Equator.
The dancing aurora lights will be helpful at night for illumination if the electric grid stays down. But beyond the dawning realization that nothing works, including all the systems for people getting food, fuel and information, for readers of this exposé that remember, there is the added element of time.
Should the power stay out for over a month, many nuclear reactors and spent fuel pools will begin to run out of emergency backup fuel for generators and batteries. That’s when the melting down will begin if the reactors aren’t powered up even if they manage to remove the rods from the core. Not too long after, the SFPs will evaporate and catch fire.
It will be lights out. There will be no way to stuff the nuclear genie back in the bottle. Depending on distance, weather, geography and proximity to a nuclear facility will determine how fast different areas will be literally nuked. Silent, invisible and tasteless, radiation will soon begin its atomic harvest.
Since most people wouldn’t know why they were starting to feel nauseous and vomiting, they might think it was Ebola and contagious adding a further terrifying scenario as society breaks down. Radiation sickness does have some of the same symptoms as the dreaded Ebola virus including spontaneous bleeding, bloody diarrhea and severe fatigue.
Radiation poisoning portends a particularly gruesome death with sloughing of the skin, mouth ulcers and infections precursors to an agonizing death. Life expectancy would depend on dose but considering the amount of radiation that would be released, it could likely impact and eliminate the entire population, including all warm-blooded animals.
Ironically, our nuclear missiles will remain immune to the horrors of the grand goo apocalypse that awaits. A trillion dollars will be spent to make sure it stays that way. Your share, and the share of every American, will be over $3,134 according to analysis of the latest population figures by EnviroReporter.com.
The missile crews, however, will suffer the same fate you, your family, friends, communities and nations will. The radiation will eventually kill them too. Needlessly, because while we can’t prevent a CME, we could prevent the full scale devastation that one would cause. We just don’t have the sense to do it.