Saturday, March 19, 2011

Nuclear Industry's Solar Tsunami Threat

As the nuclear industry tries to side-step the terrible situation unfolding in Japan, its power plant vulnerabilities are clear. No juice - no shutdown. No juice - no backup. In an emergency the reactors wont shut down - but meltdown.

Severe natural disasters are a severe danger to the 'safe operation' of nuclear plants. I am asking: Can the many nuclear power generating reactors around the world continue to function safely in the event of a direct hit from a solar flare? The direct hit that NASA have been warning about. The big one they say is coming .. perhaps in 2012 .. Michio Kaku says it may be some time between 2012 and 2013.

In 2012 the Sun will approach the peak of its 11 year cycle, called the solar maximum, as NASA and other concerned scientists warn that a direct hit from a massive solar flare can potentially burn out generators, burn out transformers and kill power lines. Essentially, stopping society in its tracks.

On the 15th of February, 2011 the Sun released the largest flare in the last four years straight towards the Earth. Because the plasma's magnetic field was parallel to the Earth its impact was reduced. "If the magnetic fields are parallel, then the shields are up. We are well protected," said space weather expert Juha-Pekka Luntama of the European Space Agency. See-Wired: Shields Up

Space weather scientists are concerned the Sun solar maximum may release more frequent and more severe solar flares and that one may impact the Earth directly. A G5 (geomagnetic storm) would shut down power grids. This event would be the world's 'tsunami from space'...

Technically, it is thought that satellites, GPS systems, communication systems as well as electrical generators and the electrical grid could be shut down. Some experts claim that it would take months, if not years to repair the damage done to power grids by a large solar flare.

No one talks about the effect it could have on the world's nuclear generating plants. Can nuclear power plants maintain the electrical power they need to cool the reactors if the electrical grid and backup generators fail? It's never been tested!

Natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions as well as severe drought (reduction of fresh water supplies), can all pose severe risks. Potentially destroying the systems needed to cool the nuclear reactors and prevent meltdown. In general, this is what is discussed when reassuring people the reactors can withstand the dangers from natural disasters. Nature is already proving them wrong in that respect.

What about the dangers from space? When the solar flare takes out electrical systems, generators, grid connections .. will it leave nuclear power stations intact?

Scientists recently detected two large holes in Earth's magnetic field, the magnetosphere. It is the magnetosphere that protects us from solar radiation. If the Earth is hit by a solar magnetic tsunami what effect would this have on reactor cores filled with nuclear material? Apart from the potential to burn out transformers and electrical systems, how will the Sun's energy affect, or 'charge' a nuclear reactors nuclear reactions?

In 1859 a solar storm wiped out electrical systems. Telegraph systems went 'haywire', as sparks discharged shocks to telegraph operators, even setting the telegraph paper on fire. NASA say: "Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted."

If a direct hit from a massive solar flare takes out transformers, power lines and generators will this have the potential to send nuclear power stations into the handicapped state we see unfolding now at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after the March 11, 2011 tsunami?

Nuclear power plant back-up systems run on electricity. Nuclear reactors will heat up and melt down, when deprived of the power to circulate water around the reactor and cool the rods inside the reactor's core. Should the main power source fail and the back-up power, as in Japan, also fails then the reactor will go critical, its behaviour out of control. Automatic backup cooling systems cannot operate without power.