NRC believes 1-2 year grid collapse in USA is credible scenario

On December 18, 2012, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) published a notice in the Federal Register (74788-74798 vol, 77, No. 243) announcing that it would consider in the rulemaking process the issues raised in a petition (Docket No. PRM-50-96: NRC-2011-0069) asserting that existing regulations for civilian nuclear power facilities are inadequate to assure pubic health and safety in the case of an electric power grid collapse lasting from 1-2 years.

The petition asserted that a combination of a loss of circulating flow and make up water for spent fuel pools in such a scenario would put the public at risk.

On June 10, 2011, I interviewed the petitioner, Thomas Popik of the Foundation for Resilient Societies, for the Atomic Show. I made the following statement at the time:

That proposed rulemaking would add backup power and cooling water source requirements for used fuel pools to enable them to operate unattended for at least two years following a loss of all offsite power. One of the proposed technologies advocated for this capability is a large array of solar panels with battery back up.

As you might imagine, I find the whole notion ridiculous and I told Tom that when I responded to his email. Used fuel pools are adequately supplied with cooling systems, there is no reason to think that any system should be able to operate without human intervention for 2 years, solar power systems have designed failures every 12 hours or so, and even if used fuel pools did lose their water, there would not be a risk to the public. Based on the results of the theory to practice event in the spent fuel pool of Fukushima unit 4, loss of water causes locally high radiation levels due to the loss of shielding, but that is about the extent of the real effects.

I was therefore disappointed to learn that the NRC has not only expended a large number of staff hours already, but it will also continue to spend hours (billed at the rate of $274 per professional staff hour to an unknown entity) for an indeterminate duration. The assigned people will perform detailed analysis to determine if US nuclear facilities are adequately protected in the case of a space weather event that is somehow severe enough to cause a complete electric power grid collapse AND the complete inability to deliver a small quantity of make up water to spent fuel pools during a response time span lasting from 1-2 years.

I’m sure that Ed Lyman would accuse me of a lack of imagination of what might be possible, but I do not believe that the radiological consequences of this scenario are worthy of any concern at all. The real truth is that I have a rather active imagination and believe that IF such a complete loss of capability occurred, one of the lowest concerns on my list would be an unhealthy exposure to radiation for any member of the plant staff or the public.

For your reading pleasure, here is a link to the 10 solid pages in the Federal Register devoted to explaining why the NRC has determined – during an evaluation that has already taken 20 months – to spend even more time and effort on this task. You can keep track of further NRC action on this issue by searching http://www.regulations.gov on Docket ID NRC–2011–0069.

And people wonder why investors are reluctant to put their money into an industry that is always at risk of someone creating another imaginary scenario specifically designed to require additional, unlimited expenditures.

About Rod Adams

31 Responses to “NRC believes 1-2 year grid collapse in USA is credible scenario”

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  1. James Greenidge says:

    Seasons Greetings;

    We kind of saw this coming with a new geologist non-nuclear background head on board. A definite new hatchet for the greens (and the anti-Vermont Yankee mob) courtesy this green-pandering administration. When are nuclear plant owners and unions and pro orgs going to fight back?? I know there’s no “nuclear industry” per se, but they do have a common brotherhood of sorts for emergencies and info sharing, don’t they? The plants themselves, even apart their parent owners, should form a collective of some kind to address the lack of political clout and nuclear public education out there just for self-preservation’s sake!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  2. cpragman says:

    I think in the preamble of 10CFR, it says that the NRC licenses the nuclear plants for peaceful use, not wartime. I’m sure our design requirements would be somewhat different if the plants were also designed to operate during wartime (although after 9-11, we seem to have creeped pretty far in that direction). I guess it would be similar to say that the NRC licenses the plants to operate during “normal” and “abnormal” grid conditions, but not “cataclysmic” conditions.

  3. Brian Mays says:

    I guess next year the NRC will take up the question of whether existing regulations for civilian nuclear power facilities are adequate to assure pubic health and safety in the case of a zombie apocalypse.

    Yeah … it’s getting that bad, and we’ve got at least four more years of this crap.

    • Curtis says:

      Imagine if the Zombie Apocalypse happened at the same time as an asteroid striking the earth that causes the Dinosaurs to spontaneously reappear!!! I don’t think our plants are designed to withstand a Zombie T-Rex!!!!

  4. Thomas Popik says:

    Many of the people reading this blog are engineers and scientists. I encourage them to read the text of the NRC action, as well as the original Petition for Rulemaking PRM-50-96, and then comment using arguments founded in logic rather than emotion. Here are links:

    Thomas Popik
    Foundation for Resilient Societies

  5. gmax137 says:

    Makes me wonder if any other federal agencies or departments are being petitioned to address this potential scenario. For example, does the Department of Commerce have to put up with idiots asking, “What will we do for jobs when all of the electric power stops for two years?” Does the DoT get questions about how the traffic lights will work? Or is the petition process a special hell the NRC built for itself? I’d love to get $274/hour for the rest of my career answering questions like that.

  6. Cyril R says:

    If a 1-2 year grid collapse is a credible scenario, we should do everything in our power to make it uncredible.

    A 1 year national outage would be the end of the Unites States. There would be only be some sort of Mad Max type of world left, without laws, regulations, only criminals, pillagings, rapings, and general injustice. It would be back tot the dark ages for all of us.

  7. Rich Lentz says:

    Many years back I had to replace a inline flow sensor on piping for the Spent Fuel Pool Cooling System. This required that a freeze seal be placed at the closest point of exit from the SFP and prevented any possibility of SFP cooling from the installed system. The analysis showed that this activity could be performed, with no cooling flow required, if completed in less than a week. The only cooling required to maintain temperature below boiling was the natural evaporation of the water. Extremely conservative assumptions (like very high humidity, higher than average temperatures, no cooling in the building, etc., etc. ) indicated that after two weeks the temperature would increase less than 2 degrees F. A plateau was reached well below boiling, 120 DF if I recall correctly. The real problem after, one – two years and no human presence – will be providing water to replace that evaporated. That could be provided by rain water and a self filling siphon system (like an many auto-drip coffee makers – ala BUNN).
    I can only think of two scenarios that could cause this a solar flare or a nuclear EMP. The thought of either of these however begs a higher level problem though. Who is going to guard and maintain the facility? How will these guards, maintenance personnel and EVERYONE else necessary to prevent looting, sabotage, vandalism etc. get to and from the NPP? How will they get fuel for their vehicle? How will they get food? How will they get paid? Who will guard the guards and maintenance personnel? How will they maintain proficiency? (look at 10CFR and the MANDATED training, proficiency and testing requirements. All 10 CFR requirements MUST be factored into the solution.) You are talking several hundred personnel and doomsday supplies for two years! And this for EVERY nuclear power plant.
    How will they communicate with anyone anywhere? This is not just a loss of grid problem. ALL, And I repeat ALL communications, radios, cell phones, landlines, ham radio, military radio, is gone and useless (unless buried many feet below ground in an EMP proof container.) Most semiconductor devices above ground have been destroyed and batteries for ALL telephone systems will have lost their charge in a matter of hours if not days. You might find enough antique tube type radios and transmitters to provide critical emergency communications, but this will be needed for life saving communications. I have been an Amateur Radio Operator for over 50 years, yet I no longer own a transmitter capable of transmitting on the ham frequencies. And going back to the idea of a Solar source as a solution for this stupid idea, it too, will need to be designed EMP proof! My hat is off to the person that designs that solar system.

  8. Eric S. Smith says:

    Nuke boosters have sort of been asking for this with habitual claims that plants are “walk-away safe,” even though what they really mean is, “…and then come back every week to top up water and diesel.”

    That said, I’ll bet that a hydro dam isn’t safe left alone for two years, either. I’d be much more interested in seeing time and money spent on demonstrating that plants can survive, and return to service promptly following, a month-long total disruption of local infrastructure. That should account for almost all conceivable natural disasters and civil emergencies that aren’t already covered by efforts to mitigate direct threats to the plant (fires, losses of coolant, flooding, earthquakes, unusually smart terrorists…).

  9. Rich Lentz says:

    Just read the FR Notice. Is there anyone in the NRC with any intelligence whatsoever? Will someone PLEASE explain how this “extreme space weather, such as coronal mass ejections” will be intelligent enough to only wipe out the power grid and not affect the communications infrastructure? If the entire grid is gone all equipment at EVERY power station is Zapped, All communications in the northern hemisphere (+) is GONE. Also how will ANY of the equipment at the NPP work? Look at the explanation on Wiki. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_pulse
    If the Power grid is gone so are all present forms of communications except semaphores and old vacuum tube radio equipment which there are not enough to provide for even emergency communications. So how is the NRC going to keep in contact the licensee as stated in the posting? Not sure about how many military hardened communications systems there are, but can’t believe there is a sufficient quantity to support 100 NPPs.

    • John Englert says:

      Rich,

      There is a significant difference between the low frequency geomagnetic storm and the high frequency component (E1) of a high altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) from a nuclear detonation. Turns out that nuclear power plants are the most resilient component of our civilian infrastructure. They will be the first plants operating when parts of the grid are restored.

  10. James Greenidge says:

    Seasons Greetings!

    Rod, would you reprint this article on the NRC blog?

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  11. Cyril R says:

    Hmm, just for fun I ran some numbers on diesel fuel use.

    Suppose you’d want an average of 100 kWe of power over a 2 year period from diesel generators. It’s more at first but much less later, so let’s use 100 kWe average draw to run the cooling pumps of the reactor, service water, heat sink, and spent fuel pool.

    This would require only 500 cubic meters of diesel fuel over 2 years! At 10 meters diameter, this is a quite small fuel tank; I’ve seen 50000 cubic meter diesel tanks.

    Unattended operation is silly, of course. Fukushima proved this. Operators do a lot of things like calling in for more equipment, laying new power cabling etc. even in a crisis situation. All the power supply and cooling systems were installed in about 3 months.

    But a 500 cubic meter diesel tank is entirely reasonable.

    Solar would be a bad idea for most climates. Since running 2 years means running through 1 or 2 winters, this means near zero output once or twice a year for MONTHS at a time (even if humongous amounts of batteries are available for weeks of supply). Batteries are also not necessarily more reliable than diesel generators.

  12. George Carlin says:

    Wow. I cannot believe that this has become a credible scenario for the NRC to study. Nevermind solving the spent fuel problem that is holding up all licensing, lets spend money and man-hours on a theoretical scenario where the entire US loses grid electricity for 1-2 years.

    As Rod has said, one of the LAST things on my mind would be a nuclear plant in this scenario. The anarchy that would ensue not long into this scenario trumps any nuclear plant worries I would have.

    With Government bodies like the NRC, it is a wonder how the US is in the economic and monetary predicament it is in (sarcasm).

    • Rich Lentz says:

      I note in the Federal Register posting statements about remote monitoring of the SFP level etc. and other actions which will NOT survive the initiating event and that the NRC claims they will be in communications with the licensee during this event. Do they not realize what will happen to the communications system if this were to happen? One of the main reasons the grid is dead is that all/most electronic devices are useless. They have just been zapped. Put an old radio or cell phone in a microwave to get an idea of what happens to it.

      • John Englert says:

        Rich,

        The reason that the grid is dead from a geomagnetic storm are the large currents induced into long power lines. This would have no effect on electronic communications systems other than a loss of power from the grid. I recommend doing a little more reading (and some remedial E&M homework) before commenting any more on this subject.

        • Rich Lentz says:

          Here is just one report that describes problems with SCADA caused by a ships radar. http://www.empcommission.org/

          When operators first started using radios I have witnessed power plants trip off line from the use of a handy talkie in the control room and another when near the feed water control instrumentation. Many of the older coal plants are still NOT RFI proof. Many NPPs have restricted the use of handy talkies and even cell phones due to these problems. Why wouldn’t a coronal mass ejection cause the same problems?

  13. EL says:

    Based on the results of the theory to practice event in the spent fuel pool of Fukushima unit 4, loss of water causes locally high radiation levels due to the loss of shielding, but that is about the extent of the real effects.

    @Rod. I’d be interested in getting clarification on this point (or from anybody else). It’s my understanding the SFP in Unit #4 was never without water, and never lost it’s shielding. The hydrogen buildup in Unit #4 leading to an explosion in that Unit was not from a “cladding fire” but a failed venting pathway from Unit #3 (a theory put forward, but unconfirmed, by WNN and others).

    http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS_Theory_for_Fukushima_Daiichi_4_explosion_1705111.html

    Do we have any clarification on this matter yet … was it a theory put to practice event (as you describe), or not?

  14. Robert Hargraves says:

    The probability of such a grid collapse would be much reduced with distributed power sources such as small modular reactors, which locate power sources near cities. Long power transmission lines are more susceptible to interruption by weather or terrorism. The best solution to this risk is to accelerate the licensing of SMRs.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Robert Hargraves

      My feelings exactly. The best available technology to support a resilient society is distributed nuclear energy. A society powered by tens to hundreds of thousands of nuclear reactors, each with fuel supplies that will last for 18 months to 42 years (already proven) without any new deliveries, could never experience widespread, sustained losses of electrical power.

      • John Englert says:

        @Rod

        The study by Metatech looks at the problem in a worst-case way, assuming that no actions are taken to mitigate the effects. Our space weather situational awareness has improved since the 1989 event in Canada. Grid operators will have time to put their systems into a safer configuration so that the whole system won’t be lost for months to years. Fortunately for us, nuclear power plants are the most resilient of our power infrastructure and if allowed to operate when the grid is not at 100%, should be able to provide much needed power after the storm.

        As for a HEMP attack, well I’m guessing if such an attack does occur, then a few SFP boiling their water away will be the least of our concerns. We will be much more worried about the nuclear fallout from exploding weapons.

  15. Christopher Willis says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but can a plant not supply itself with the electricity it needs as long as the reactor isn’t scramed? Does the grid have to be alive for a plant to supply itself cooling power?

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Christopher Willis

      If properly designed, a nuclear plant can supply all of the power that it needs. Grid power is not necessarily required to support fission. Though I cannot provide any details, I can point to the supporting fact that we have been safely operating grid independent ships on nuclear energy since Jan 17, 1955.

    • Michael Antonelli says:

      The main issue is the main generator minimum capacity. It is difficult, if not impossible, using a standard nuclear plant sized generator, to operate the generator at a low enough power output to support JUST plant loads needed for safe shutdown. Large nuclear generators are not normally designed for very small and varying loads.

      But, notice I said standard generator.

      I’ve read GE contracts and specifications for the BWR 6 reactor. One of the options is a modified generator and control system to start the reactor up in an “Island” mode, using just battery power and a single diesel, and bringing the core and generator online at very low power in natural circulation. I don’t believe, at least in the US, that any BWR plant has this option installed or enabled. It’s really meant more for small grid situations like in other countries or, literally, on an island. But it is possible for the plant to bring a small section of power grid online, and eventually come off its diesel generator and transfer house loads over to the main generator.

      In the US, this would be forbidden by the operating license. A hot reactor has an increased risk associated with it, and NRC regulations and operating license conditions prohibit mode changes without the required onsite and offsite power sources OPERABLE.

      So the short answers, first, most plants do not have the equipment or procedures to use their own generator to supply house loads when the grid is not available, and even if they did, regulations would make that difficult if not impossible to accomplish.

      • Rod Adams says:

        FYI

        I wear a Hawaiian shirt to work every other Friday. So do several of my colleagues. We call that day, “island mode” Friday. I’ll leave it at that.

  16. Hank Roberts says:

    Grid power is needed, or an adequate replacement, for the cool-down months (years?), not for operating normally (and for that, don’t you need the grid to take the output power?

    Lose one plant’s grid during an emergency shutdown in one area, no worries, rush in gear from outside.

    Lose the grid everywhere, lose the refineries, lose the railroads — raises more issues.
    That’s the Carrington Event situation.

    > ships
    Have any had to cool down after a major fault? They’re smaller reactors, with ample cooling water available, presumably, fairly close by, and relatively smaller fuel loads so less cooling required for a shorter time span.

    The research assessing the risk of a Carrington-type flare — or larger — keeps coming in. That’s why the NRC is taking this seriously: because it’s looking far more likely than was imagined til recently.

    http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2012/2012JA017706.shtml

    ” Because the likelihood of flares larger than approximately X30 remains empirically unconstrained, we present indirect arguments, based on records of sunspots and on statistical arguments, that solar flares in the past four centuries have likely not substantially exceeded the level of the largest flares observed in the space era, and that there is at most about a 10% chance of a flare larger than about X30 in the next 30 years.”

    Read that again. Be prepared …

  17. Margaret Harding says:

    I spent considerable time talking with a producer for a TV show in the UK that is doing a “doomsday scenario” documentary related to the idea that a massive solar storm successfully knocked out the grid.
    The scenario itself is at least somewhat plasuible. EPRI and others have reviewed the issues and conclude that a massive solar flare could cause significant damage to large numbers of high voltage transformers. There is not a sufficient supply of these transformers to quickly bring the grid back on line. Thus, an outage of a year or more is entirely feasible.
    That said, communications could (and likely would) be maintained through fiber optics, which would be unaffected by such events.
    NPPs are required BY REGULATION to maintain adequate supplies of diesel fuel for indefinite periods – specific refueling plans, tanks with at least 30 days supply, etc, etc.
    The Spent Fuel Pool issue is still a “ghost story” in my mind. Yes, water will slowly evaporate from the pools, Unless there is significant damage to all infrastructure a simple garden hose and a small pump hooked up to one of these diesels would easily maintain the water level.
    It is my belief that if such a doomsday scenario occurred, NPPs would become regional islands of stability with light and heat from those diesel generators protecting the most vulnerable citizens from the surrounding communities. Much like Onagawa did after the great Tohoku quake and tsanami in Japan.
    Fukushima proved that the men and women who operate these machines are dedicated professionals that will not abandon their jobs.

  18. Hank Roberts says:

    > NPPs would become regional islands of stability
    It’s a nice dream that has been used in various science-fiction novels.

    But when the grid is down, there’s no place to _send_ the power from a nuclear plant, so it has to be shut down. It can’t just sit there cranking out electricity for its little local region. And when the grid goes down longterm, you won’t have those truckloads of diesel rolling in to keep the cooling operating.

    This is why I argue every fission plant should fill the space around the plant with all available alternative energy sources — solar panels over the parking lots, geothermal around the property, windmills, whatever. Those will all be excessively expensive and irregular power sources compared to a properly functioning fission plant — and utterly indispensible electric supplies during the cooling down years after the next Carrington-level flare.

    Ten percent chance in the next 30 years.

    Do we feel lucky? Do we?

    • James Greenidge says:

      Re: “Carrington-level flare.”

      Why do critics think they’ve a monoploy on ideas and concerns over blue-moon events that Might influence the delicate clockwork of the world — really? And we don’t need no windmills and solar farms taking up the slack on drop-outs; they darn sure don’t need them on nuke submarines and aircraft carriers, battle conditions or not, so there’re doable provable solutions out there without tapping green crutches to basically assuage fears and nightmares. Sheesh! Get real and concerned about things that ARE killing people and babies en masse right now, not speculations about one in a million incidents that Might — and has long already been pondered over!

      James Greenidge
      Queens NY

  19. Hank Roberts says:

    I knew I needed to cite that figure, sorry.
    You’re not arguing with me.

    Here:

    http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2012/2012JA017706.shtml

    ” Because the likelihood of flares larger than approximately X30 remains empirically unconstrained, we present indirect arguments, based on records of sunspots and on statistical arguments, that solar flares in the past four centuries have likely not substantially exceeded the level of the largest flares observed in the space era, and that there is at most about a 10% chance of a flare larger than about X30 in the next 30 years.”

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