The Commercial Appeal

Power grid draws concern

Solar disruption­s point to infrastruc­ture needs

- 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:

(202) 408-2726

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