Power grid draws concern

So­lar dis­rup­tions point to in­fra­struc­ture needs

The Commercial Appeal - - Business - By Bartholome­w Sullivan

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.

And 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 — that knocked out world­wide tele­graph lines, the high-tech telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work of their day.

Though rare, a Car­ring­ton-like burst in the 21st cen­tury would have a cat­a­strophic, civ­i­liza­tion-al­ter­ing ef­fect , ex­perts say. Leg­is­la­tion in­tro­duced in Congress ear­lier this 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.”

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

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clad rods and spark­ing fires that would re­lease deadly ra­di­a­tion.

Their so­lu­tion is a rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive, $152,800-per­plant ar­range­ment to keep the coolant pools op­er­at­ing unat­tended in the wake of such an event. The foun­da­tion’s mem­bers are not an­ti­nu­clear, he in­sists, and their ev­i­dence comes from ex­ist­ing gov­ern­ment stud­ies, not ad­vo­cacy groups.

“The amount of at­ten­tion we’ve 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 last week. “And many peo­ple pre­fer not to think about such things and many ed­i­tors pre­fer not to write about them. ...”

“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. “Al­though in­di­vid­u­als may de­cide to make their own prepa­ra­tions, as a so­ci­ety, we need to pre­vent this calamity from hap­pen­ing.”

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 backup 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 backup safety pro­ce­dures so that spent fuel pools could op­er­ate unat­tended un­til grid power is re­stored.

The Oak Ridge Lab re­port, re­leased in 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.

Mem­phis Light, Gas and Wa­ter Divi­sion doesn’t use trans­form­ers that big, but it does re­ceive elec­tric power gen­er­ated by the Ten­nessee Val­ley Au­thor­ity, which op­er­ates three nu­clear power plants in Ten­nessee. En­tergy op­er­ates the Grand Gulf nu­clear plant near Port Gib­son, Miss., and the Arkansas Nu­clear units 1 and 2 near Rus­sel­lville.

In ad­di­tion to the NRC re­view of the threat of so­lar flares on spent fuel pool op­er­a­tions, U.S. 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 bulkpower 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 high­volt­age grid from so­lar flare threats, but we just have to do it. We’ve stud­ied it, and now it’s a mat­ter of tak­ing the right preven­tive steps.”

LeFleur also en­dorsed the bill’s direc­tive to have more trans­form­ers avail­able be­cause of the long lead time it takes to build them.

Franks, tes­ti­fy­ing be­fore a FERC tech­ni­cal con­fer­ence on risks to the re­li­a­bil­ity of the grid on Feb. 8, spoke of the dev­as­ta­tion an elec­tro­mag­netic pulse event could have na­tion­wide.

“The im­me­di­ate and even­tual im­pact, di­rectly and in­di­rectly, on the hu­man pop­u­la­tion, es­pe­cially in ma­jor cities,” he said, “is un­think­able.” — Bartholome­w S ul­li­van:

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