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Effect of Solar Storms on the Grid and Nuke Plants?

  1. Sep 13, 2011 #1
    I found a recent article suggesting that solar storms predicted in in the next few years pose a serious threat to the electrical grid and thus to nuclear plant cooling systems:

    "Severe Solar Storms Could Disrupt Earth This Decade: NOAA," International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/194166/20110808/solar-storms-severe-solar-storms-earth-paralyse-carrington-event.htm [Broken], 8/8/11. Here's an excerpt "A report by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory said that over the standard 40-year license term of nuclear power plants, solar flare activity enables a 33 percent chance of long-term power [grid] loss, a risk that significantly outweighs that of major earthquakes and tsunamis."

    Electromagnetic energy from solar flares can destroy power transformers on earth and cause long-term power outages. And as we saw in Fukushima, nuclear power plants crucially rely on the power grid to continuously cool nuclear fuel (both active fuel and spent fuel).

    Here's an example of a fairly short-term power outage caused by solar activity ( http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2011/03/11/f-power-2020-aging-infrastructure.html ): "On March 13, 1989...a violent solar storm knocked out power across Quebec for more than nine hours during the chilly tail end of winter. The blast of energy and plasma from the sun also caused smaller blackouts and damage to electricity infrastructure in other parts of North America.

    According to the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storm cost Hydro-Québec and Public Service Electric and Gas of New Jersey more than $30 million, putting the event on par with damage caused by hurricanes and earthquakes."

    Here is a article that paints a scary scenario, though it is from a more questionable source: "Solar flare could unleash nuclear holocaust across planet Earth, forcing hundreds of nuclear power plants into total meltdowns" http://www.naturalnews.com/033564_solar_flares_nuclear_power_plants.html .

    Several questions:

    a) Is Oak Ridge National Laboratory correct in saying that there is a 33% chance of long-term grid failure to the average nuclear power plant over 40 years due to solar flares? And what do they mean by long-term?

    b) What would you recommend be done (from a technical perspective) to prevent possible nuclear meltdowns due to possible long-term power outages caused by massive solar flares? Is there any way to retrofit a nuclear plant to (temporarily or permanently) run its cooling systems off of the power generated by the nuclear plant itself? Why weren't plants designed to do this in the first place? (Of course, the current diesel generator and battery emergency backup systems would be needed too.)

    c) Any reactions to the above articles?

    Thanks, Neil
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 13, 2011 #2


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    Nuclear plants are designed to shutdown when they lose connection to the grid. The decay heat is not sufficient to provide the turbine-generator with appropriate power to generate electricity. Instead, plants have backup or emergency diesel generators. Some NPPs may have fossil units nearby.
  4. Sep 13, 2011 #3
    Neil, take a look at the Carrington Event [solar storm of 1859].


    What happens when dozens or even hundreds of NPPs lose the grid at the same time?
  5. Sep 14, 2011 #4


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    Hope they bring in the back-up diesel fuel shipments before the roads are grid-locked.

    Even if we are to be concerned with North Anna's back-up generator failure, it's unlikely that many plants will loose enough generators for more than one ore two real Fukushima-esque melt fests.
  6. Sep 14, 2011 #5

    jim hardy

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    ""Hope they bring in the back-up diesel fuel shipments before the roads are grid-locked.""

    we had no trouble with fuel deliveries after hurricane Andrew. Even though we had weeks of fuel on hand for emergency diesels we kept them topped off.

    uilities learned from the 1968 blackout that you need to be able to "reboot" your grid.

    It would take quite a diesel to start a 7,000 hp boiler feed pump that might draw 20,000 hp while starting. So a large fossil unit in a black-out is in same pickle as a nuke - down until the grid comes back.
    To that end utilities sprinkled around their systems smaller plants capable of bootstrapping the larger units. Gas Turbines work well for that. The 400 mw fossil units adjacent my plant had 12,000 hp of diesels enough to start one of their 3,000hp feed pumps and get them going.

    so a solar induced blackout shouldn't last long.
    far worse would be something that physically destroys the power line support towers. like an earthquake.

    old jim
  7. Sep 14, 2011 #6


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  8. Sep 14, 2011 #7

    jim hardy

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    Fascinating link, Astro.

    The power grid is a delicately balanced, running machine.
    We dont realize that because the wires don't spin at 3600 rpm like the generators do.
    In reality each wire is analogous to a mechanical drive shaft.
    Power flowing down it is analagous to torque.
    Torsional oscillations are possible, as is breakage from overtorque.

    When the computers quit the system operators were in same situation as pilots of that AirFrance Airbus - flying blind.

    old jim
  9. Sep 14, 2011 #8
    I think plants would probably be fine assuming no serious civil unrest after loss of power. I'm a bit concerned about possibility of fires near the plants, starting from the grid connected equipment.
    The circuit breakers are highly non trivial devices at this kind of power levels.
  10. Sep 14, 2011 #9


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    And if that isn't enough we have a large political bloc that wants to make the grid even more unstable by increasing wind and solar generation and shutting down nuclear and fossil generation.

    I like the idea of free energy that doesn't pollute, but I think we have a long way to go to make it possible.
  11. Sep 14, 2011 #10
    Can't see the logic in that statement . Somewhere in this world ,the tide is always going in or out ,the wind is blowing,rivers are flowing ,geysers are spouting and the sun is shining.

    No such thing as "free energy" but some sources are sustainable and others are not and appear to incur lethal costs.
    One step on , maybe we should think outside the 'grid' ?
  12. Sep 14, 2011 #11

    jim hardy

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    if we take it to the logical extreme, way past anything practical,

    one day mankind will have to get by on just what precious little energy he can eke out of the sun every day.

    These are the 'good old days'.

    We are still on the upward trend of per capita energy use.
    To that end we are dependent on a huge machine of which we are largely unaware - the electric grid.

    the big machine evolved because it enjoys economy of scale.
  13. Sep 14, 2011 #12


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    When you say that you "can't see the logic," are you trying to be argumentative?

    Thinking "outside the grid" is the exact opposite of genertion "somewhere in the world" and getting that power to a customer.

    The opponents of fossil and nuclear generation baseload are usually the ones who claim solar and wind power are "free and don't pollute. I'm not that naive. As to lethal costs the pollution from coal is much more deadly than multiple Fukushima, Chernobyl and TMI2 accidents. Yet the most vocal opposition is to nuclear power. Is that logical?

    If you believe in global warming, which is best: burning coal, burning switchgrass, ar nuclear power?

    Smaller countries like Germany and Italy have a much better chance to increase the share of solar and wind generation because of their geographic area. That will make a smart grid easier for them to achive. The topic of solar storms is another excellent distinction between the larger and smaller counties and their vulnerability to grid disruptions. Electomagentic disturbances are directly proportional to the length of conductors exposed to a solar field.

    Distributed generation with solar and wind power is limited currently to residential or small business applications because they are less sensitive to power quality and reliability requirements than manufacturing, industry and other larger commercial customers.

    Implementation of power storage capacity would be a big help. That too however, is not yet technically achievable. Those limitations may change as research and development continues.

    I am not saying these changes can't or won't happen. I am all for continuing to develop a diversity of improvements including smart grid technology. In the meantime I will work to prevent the TRULY ILLOGICAL" destruction of power systems that have become essential to our society in the misguided pursuit of simplistic feel-good solutions that don't solve anything.
  14. Sep 14, 2011 #13
    Jim Hardy: "we had no trouble with fuel deliveries after hurricane Andrew. Even though we had weeks of fuel on hand for emergency diesels we kept them topped off. uilities learned from the 1968 blackout that you need to be able to "reboot" your grid."

    http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/194166/20110808/solar-storms-severe-solar-storms-earth-paralyse-carrington-event.htm [Broken]: "...there may also be disruption of power supply for years, or even decades, as geomagnetic currents attracted by the [solar] storm could debilitate the [grid] transformers."

    How long must active nuclear fuel rods in a reactor be cooled to prevent a meltdown after a reactor is shut down? Is the quote above from the International Business Times way off? I honestly don't know. But if solar storms were to knock out the grid for a year, society would probably descend into chaos. Also, the process of refining oil into diesel fuel or nat gas into propane requires electricity, which would no longer be available, unless backup generators were brought to the refineries. And the NPP (Nuclear Power Plant) backup generators require continuous diesel or nat gas. Also, trucks would be needed to ship the fuel to the NPPs during a one year power outage.

    The spent fuel pools require water pumping for 10 to 20 years to cool down new rods or else the water would boil away and large amounts of radiation could be released. In 1997, the Brookhaven National Laboratory estimated that a "massive calamity at one spent-fuel pool could ultimately lead to 138,000 deaths and contaminate 2,000 sq. mi. (5,200 sq km) of land" (source: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2060880,00.html ).

    Thanks everyone for all your interesting responses above. Best, Neil
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  15. Sep 14, 2011 #14

    jim hardy

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    ""Is the quote above from the International Business Times way off? I honestly don't know. ""

    i was going to check his source for that claim but get a 404 on the link.

    myself i think it's quite a stretch of imagination.

    long power lines may relay out but i dont see a mechanism for wrecking transformers .
    The same features that keep the internal magnetism inside the transformer will keep the external magnetism from doing much.

    just my seat of the pants feeling. i could be wrong.

    any transformer design guys here?
  16. Sep 14, 2011 #15
    Jim Hardy "i was going to check his source for that claim but get a 404 on the link."

    Oops, I added a stray colon in the link. I've corrected the link in my post above. The link is also here: http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/194166/20110808/solar-storms-severe-solar-storms-earth-paralyse-carrington-event.htm [Broken] . Best, Neil
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  17. Sep 15, 2011 #16


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    The issue of electrical grid security/reliability/stability is in the realm of electrical engineering, and really has nothing to do with nuclear engineering. The IBTimes articles is speculative, and perhaps overly speculative.

    It is hard to imagine a nation having an electrical grid down for weeks, months, years. The technology is much more robust than in the 1800s.

    The solar activity is a discussion topic for astrophyiscs. Prior to solar cycle 24, there was speculation about the sun entering a relatively prolonged quiet phase. Now we see 'speculation' about an active period in 2013. We discourage and even prohibited 'overly speculative' posts at PF to avoid the unnecessary and unproductive arguments about what might be.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  18. Sep 18, 2011 #17
    From what I've heard, the main concern is the very large, extra high voltage transformers. It is possible to protect them from large surges of geomagnetically induced DC current, but most transformers don't have this protection, and there's no guarantee that the grid operators would take the necessary action to protect the many transformers without automated protection (i.e., make the decision to disconnect them and shut down power before the storm arrives).

    If a bunch of them were destroyed in a single event, there would be trouble. We do not keep any significant number of this class of transformers in reserve, and there is in fact a long manufacturing backlog for new ones.

    There's a bit of discussion on this here.
  19. Sep 18, 2011 #18


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    Exelon Corporation that owns the Peach Bottom Nuclear Power Plant Units 2 and 3 on the Susquehanna River also owns the Conowingo dam and hydro plant just down stream of the Peach Bottom plant. I recently read the testimony of an Exelon executive that states that they have a dedicated underground electric line from the dam to the nuclear power plant, so the dam provide backup power.

    That seems like such a great idea. Lots of nuclear power plants are located on rivers, and owning a dam on the same river seems like a very good idea.

    The Conowingo dam is a "run of the river" dam and is a lot older than the nuclear plant.

  20. Sep 27, 2011 #19
    Considering the fact that the operation of nuclear power plants DEPENDS on an ongoing and functioning source of electrical power, I would think that the two realms are critically interdependent and a rational discussion of the nuclear engineering realm cannot ignore the effect that the elimination of the electrical engineering realm would create.

    Also considering the fact that this is a LP/HC event, I believe that it needs to be taken seriously (Low Probability/High Consequence).

    In order to provide sources of information that are not considered speculative, I'd like to offer:

    A report from the National Academy of Sciences titled, "Severe Space Weather Events--Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts"

    and a report from, "The EMP Commission [which] was established pursuant to title XIV of the Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001"

    The first report states: "Today scientists have a better understanding of the technical causes and implications of space weather, and even of appropriate technical responses to it, than they did in the past. Knowledge of the social, institutional, and policy implications of space weather is growing but is still rudimentary. The disruption of the telegraph system in 1859 caused problems in communication, but because modern society is so dependent on large, complex, and interconnected technical systems—and because these systems not only are vital for the functioning of the economy but also are vulnerable to electromagnetic events–a contemporary repetition of the Carrington event would cause significantly more extensive (and possibly catastrophic) social and economic disruptions."

    I find the fact that both reports left out the implications for the nuclear power industry in the event of a long-term shut down of a significant portion of our power grid to be negligent.
  21. Sep 27, 2011 #20


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    The utilities that operate nuclear power plants also operate with a diverse variety of other types, e.g., coal, oil, natural gas, hydro, wind, solar, . . . . Just because nuclear plants aren't explicitly mentioned does not mean that the interest parties are neglecting those issues.

    The utilities have an interest in maintaining the entire grid.
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