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Experts: Move to protect nuke plants from solar flare DAMAGE

Posted on: March 6, 2011

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.

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 and the increased energy in the atmosphere. The pulse surged through telegraph lines, the high-tech telecommunications network of their day, rending them unusable for a couple of days, making keys click on their own, and actually catching a few lines on fire.

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

The sun ended one of its quietest periods of the past century in mid-February with a moderate-sized solar flare. Most experts believe solar activity will reach a peak of a regular 11-year cycle in either 2012 or 2013, but no one knows exactly how powerful those disturbances might be.

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-clad rods and sparking fires that would release deadly radiation.

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

“The amount of attention we’re 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. “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. “

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