Intensifying solar flares pose threat to modern civilization

By Ted Bonnitt on February 7th, 2012
Intensifying solar flares pose threat to modern civilization
U.S. electric power grid (FEMA)
U.S. electric power grid (FEMA)

Recent, massive solar ejections have hurled large amounts of radiation at earth, interfering with satellite communications and illuminating the northern lights.

If dangerous solar activity is on the rise, how bad could it get?

M.I.T. trained engineer Matt Stein, wrote an article on the subject, "400 Chernobyls: Solar Flares, EMP, and Nuclear Armageddon." His latest book is, "When Technology Fails."  

Stein, obviously, is concerned about the end of the world as we know it. He writes in the current issue of Nexus magazine, 

"When our Sun ejects a huge mass of highly charged plasma (a coronal mass ejection, or CME) directly towards Earth, colliding with the planet's magnetosphere and outer atmosphere, the result is an extreme geomagnetic disturbance (GMD)."

Big GMDs have slammed into earth throughout history.  

Stein writes, "In March 1989, a severe GMD induced powerful electric currents in grid wiring that fried a main power transformer in the Hydro-Qu├ębec system in Canada, causing a cascading grid failure that knocked out power to six million customers for nine hours."

He goes on to add, "The great-granddaddy of GMDs in recorded history is the 1859 Carrington Event. During this geomagnetic storm, which lasted from 28 August to 4 September, the northern lights were seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. The GMD induced currents so powerful that telegraph lines, towers and stations caught on fire at numerous locations around the world."

With today's technology in place, a massive GMD, "would create a electrical magnetic pulse (EMP) that could knock out huge parts of the world's electrical power "grid" which is essential to maintaining food production and distribution, telecommunications, Internet services, medical services, military defense, transportation, government, water treatment, sewage and garbage removal, refrigeration, oil refining and gas pumping, and to conduct all forms of commerce."

But wait, it gets worse.  

Stein continues, "If an extreme GMD causes widespread grid collapse (which it most certainly will), in as little as one or two hours after each nuclear reactor facility's back-up generators either fail to start or run out of fuel, the reactor cores will start to melt down. After a few days without electricity to run the cooling system pumps, the water bath covering the spent fuel rods stored in spent fuel ponds will boil away, allowing the stored fuel rods to melt down and burn.  Since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) currently mandates that only one week's supply of back- up generator fuel needs to be stored at each reactor site, it is likely that after we witness the spectacular night-time celestial light show from the next extreme geomagnetic disturbance we will have about one week in which to prepare ourselves for Armageddon."

A power outage can cause a nuclear power plant to melt down?   It has already happened.  

Stein continues,  "It was a short-term cooling system failure that caused the partial reactor core meltdown in March 1979 at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania. Similarly, according to officials it was not direct damage from Japan's 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake on 11 March 2011 that caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor disaster but the loss of electric power to the cooling system pumps when the facility's massive back- up diesel generators were wiped out by the ensuing tidal waves. In the hours and days after the tidal waves shuttered the cooling system, the cores of reactors numbers 1, 2 and 3 were in full meltdown and released hydrogen gas, fueling explosions which breached several containment vessels. Of even greater danger and concern than nuclear reactor cores themselves are the spent fuel rods stored in on-site cooling ponds."

X-Class solar flare

On Jan. 27, 2012, a large X-class flare erupted from the sun, the most powerful of all solar events. Credit: NASA 

Power Tower
The grid's high power transmission lines.

The sun is not the only potential source of devastating energy bursts.

While its effect would not come near to the sun's potential to fry the globe, a nuclear bomb detonated from an enemy satellite or ICBM could send an EMP pulse strong enough to take down half of the US power grid, including financial markets, chemical plants, missile silos, all communications, to name a few. Emergency responders would be crippled in the wake of an impact 50 times greater than Hurricane Katrina.  

Depressed yet?  

There is some good news.  The risk of massive power outages may be substantially reduced by building large-scale power surge protection devices along the grid.

EHV transformer

Power grids are webbed together with high tension power lines strung along massive steel towers.  Electricity is sent along these transmission lines by network of extra-high-voltage (EHV) power transformers.  EHVs are vulnerable to EMPs and GMPs.  

That's an easy fix, you might think.  Just replace the EHVs when they blow out.  Not so easy, says Stein, "EHV transformers are custom designed for each installation and are made to order, weighing as much as 300 tons and costing well over one million dollars each."  Stein added that there is currently a three-year waiting list for replacement EHV transformers, due to increased demand from development in China and India.

You get the picture.  There are about 350 EHVs in the U.S. and approximately 2000 worldwide.  Protect the EHVs and you'll help protect the grid.  Stein writes that there is an affordable way to do that, and protect nuclear power plants from melting down due to a prolonged power outage.  The hitch has been a U.S. Congress unwilling to get it done.   

EHV Transformers
EHV transformers in U.S.

It is estimated that it would cost one billion dollars to add devices and store replacement parts to protect the EHVs in the grid, which is not a lot of money when one considers that a single B-2 bomber costs more than twice that amount.  It would cost "significantly less" than a billion dollars to store enough diesel fuel at every nuclear power plant to generate back up cooling power for up to a year.

All of that added protection for less than the cost of one stealth bomber, or a mere fraction of T.A.R.P. bailout money. Yet, for several years, Congress has voted down recommendations to protect the grid.

Stein calls the opportunity to fortify the grid "a no-brainer" as a hedge against the possible end of civilization as we know it.

Read Stein's full article, Geomagnetic Storms, EMP and Nuclear Armageddon.  

You can write your U.S. Representative and ask them to protect the power grid.   

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