What Can We Expect and Do Now To Prevent a Nuclear Power Plant Meltdown in an EMP Scenario, by B.Z.

I was prompted to write in response to the reader who commented on the recent article entitled “Six Common Misconceptions About EMP”, by G.P., which was published in December 2014.

The reader asked specifically: “Can we expect the 100+ nuclear power plants in the country to have meltdowns when the grid can no longer supply the power these plants need? In particular, what about the spent fuel pools?”

Let me first say that I personally have met the author of this article, and I can attest that he is one of the foremost experts on EMP in the world.

My own expertise comes from over 30 years in the commercial nuclear power industry, and it is with this background that I am responding to the reader’s comments regarding his question on the impact of EMP on nuclear power plants.

I wrote about the effects of EMP on nuclear power plants in an article that was published in SurvivalBlog in 2010. The industry was in general, quite frankly, clueless about EMP at that time. A lot has happened in the nuclear industry since the accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japan in March 2011. This was a long-overdue wake-up call for the industry that “beyond design basis” accidents can and do happen and that normal events, such as tornadoes, flood, hurricanes, and earthquakes, may be more severe than what has been previously evaluated.

I can say with some certainty that, at this time, an EMP event (whether solar or man-made) specifically has not been evaluated, and nuclear power plants in the USA still do not have an EMP event as a planned initiating event. However, the events at Fukushima have prompted the industry to re-examine those events that could impact a given nuclear plant, depending on the region of the country that the power plant resides and the most likely limiting scenario for that specific plant, given the geography, geology, topography, and climate.

The industry has also created a program called FLEX, whereby there are now two warehouses of portable pumps, generators, and other equipment that can be transported by air or other means in short order (in 24 hours or less) to any nuclear power plant in the USA that experiences a beyond design basis event that challenges the already formidable onsite safety systems that are already in place. The nuclear industry has come together and has agreed on standard couplings and interfaces to enable these portable pumps, generators, and other equipment to be able to be used at any power plant in the USA. Essentially, they become “plug and play” devices that can supplement or even replace current onsite systems that may have failed or become inoperable due to some catastrophic event that impacted the nuclear power plant. You can read more about the FLEX program here: http://safetyfirst.nei.org/industry-actions/flex-the-industry-strategy-to-enhance-safety/

All of this is well and good. If a local or regional disaster happens, the nuclear industry now seems quite capable of responding in a timely and effective manner to reduce the impact of any localized event at a given nuclear power plant. However, they neglected to understand one key flaw in their premise; the usefulness of FLEX and other work that has been done anticipates that no more than a few power plants might be impacted by something like a large regional earthquake or other event. They did not understand (or maybe they did not want to admit), that it might be possible for ALL of the nuclear plants to be impacted at the same time. A national or continent-wide EMP event could cripple or disable all of the nuclear plants in the USA at the same time. There are not enough pumps, generators, and other equipment to assist ALL of the nuclear plants at the same time. Additionally, there is no provision for the possibility that the entire nation might be impacted by a loss of transportation or communication at the same time. Thus, all of that equipment, now sitting in the two warehouses in Phoenix and Chattanooga, may never get transported anywhere, if the trucks are not able to negotiate the roads and the planes or helicopters cannot fly due to the loss of the transportation infrastructure.

However, the industry has done more than just stage some portable equipment that may or may not ever be used. They have delved deeply in the design of the nuclear plants and have made some very good progress in developing other mitigating techniques that could be very helpful in the event of an EMP.

In addition to large emergency diesel generators, all nuclear plants in the USA have large banks of batteries as backup. Battery backups had been expected to last perhaps just a few hours, if the emergency diesel generators failed. Even with these batteries, there really is not sufficient power to operate large pumps, but vital instrumentation could be kept functional. However, careful examination and new procedures for load-shedding and operating just certain, basic, and key equipment have shown that it is possible for the plants to get by for more than 24 hours on batteries alone.

In addition, portable, onsite pumps and diesels can allow the spent fuel pools to be filled (and therefore cooled) without having the large, emergency diesels available, and plans are now in place to actually allow the spent fuel pools to boil and refill the pools as the water boils off. This means that given access to the available, onsite supply of diesel fuel and access to water, the spent fuel pools may be able to be refilled as needed and prevented from running dry for six months or possibly more. This is a huge development in combating the biggest concern about nuclear power plants and EMP– the possibility of boil off of the water in the spent fuel pools and the zirconium fuel rods catching fire.

The events at Fukushima were a blessing in disguise for anyone concerned about EMP in this country, because it made America’s nuclear plant designers and operators really think about the important vulnerabilities and weaknesses that could be compromised in the event of some very unlikely but very serious beyond design basis events, and it motivated them to come up with ways to mitigate these vulnerabilities. Thus, instead of maybe a week or so before something catastrophic happens at the nuclear plants after an EMP event, it may be several months before the situation deteriorates enough to be alarmed, provided that personnel stay in place at the power plants or relief shifts are available to act to maintain the reactors and prevent the spent fuel pools from boiling off. However, given that all of these power plant personnel have families who also need to be protected, I think that is still a concern.

A petition (PRM-50-96), which was sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) shortly after Fukushima and approved by the NRC but so far not yet acted on, may yet help us. The purpose of this petition was to require that all U.S. nuclear power plants have reliable emergency systems onsite that are capable to operate for a period of two years without human intervention and without off-site fuel resupply. This petition was unique in that it was actually accepted by the NRC, and the NRC agreed with the premise that solar storms could be a concern for nuclear power plants due to the loss of the power grid and the loss or interruption of other vital infrastructure. A summary of some of the key industry comments and NRC responses, as well as a summary of the petition can be examined online. http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=NRC-2011-0069-0109

I have extracted quotes from the Federal Register that may help to clarify the NRC’s stated position on this petition:

“… the NRC has concluded that the expected frequency of such storms is not remote compared to other hazards that the NRC requires NPPs licensees to consider.”

“The NRC believes that it is possible that a geomagnetic storm-induced outage could be long-lasting and could last long enough that the onsite supply of fuel for the emergency generators would be exhausted. “

“It is also possible that a widespread, prolonged grid outage could cause some disruption to society and to the Nation’s infrastructure such that normal commercial deliveries of diesel fuel could be disrupted. In such a situation, it would be prudent for licensees to have procedures in place to address long-term grid collapse scenarios.”

“Solar storms are not specifically identified as natural hazards in GDC 2 [General Design Criteria 2], but the information currently available to the NRC indicates that the frequency of these storms may be consistent with other natural hazards within the intended scope of the GDC.”

“Accordingly, it is appropriate for the NRC to consider regulatory actions that could be needed to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety during and after a severe geomagnetic storm.”

“Thus, the NRC concludes that the petitioner’s scenario is sufficiently credible to require consideration of emergency planning and response capabilities under such circumstances. Accordingly, the NRC intends to further evaluate the petitioner’s concerns in the NRC rulemaking process.”

They addressed the consequences of long-term loss of outside power only on spent fuel pools. However, in its ruling on PRM-50-96, the NRC decided on its own initiative to also evaluate the effect of long-term loss of outside power on safe shutdown and core cooling:

“Although outside the scope of this PRM, it should be noted that the NRC, as a part of its core mission to protect public health and safety, is updating its previous evaluation of the effects of geomagnetic storms on systems and components needed to ensure safe shutdown and core cooling at nuclear power reactors.”

So, in this case, some (non-elected) government officials got it right, but so far no real action has been taken. Therefore, I urge you to write to your senators and congressmen and ask them to contact the NRC to act on Petition PRM-50-96. It could save your life and the lives of your family by protecting the spent fuel pools at the nuclear power plants in the event of a nationwide EMP.