I hope the rest of my audience sticks around; I'm going to tell you about a serious potential problem about which you should be aware. It is my #1 concern, and I figured it was time I told you about it.
One of the areas I deal with professionally is assessing and mitigating potential threats to the survival of the organization that employs me, and to their facilities and staff. I apply these same principles to my personal life, and often people who are introduced to me socially ask me, when they find out what I do, what they should be concerned about.
I usually respond by asking whether they have in-date fire extinguishers in their home, and whether they have a fire evacuation plan for their family. If in fact they do, which is rare, I then ask them if they have actually ever tested the plan. So far, over many years of asking the same questions, IIRC I have only had a couple of people say yes. I tell them that the most common lethal threat most Americans face is that of the house fire, that there are tens of thousands of house fires every year, and that thousands of people are killed and injured every year in them.
Despite the statistics, few people pay attention to them, believing it won't happen to them. And, realistically, with tens of millions of houses in these presently united States, the odds are about one in a thousand or so that you will suffer the effects of a home fire in any given year, so the vast majority of people will not suffer for their lack of preparedness in this regard. Some do, however, and those who have survived a home fire are more likely to be better prepared for the threat ( one person who said yes to both my questions was one such.)
Then I say, "But that isn't what *I* worry about. I have fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and an evacuation plan. Besides, a house fire only affects me and my family. There are much more significant hazards out there. Do you want to know what they are?" If they say yes, I ask them if they're sure that they want to know; I tell them that I have no brain floss or blue pill if they change their mind afterwards. Sort of like the Dan Akroyd character in the Twilight Zone movie, "Wanna know something that's REALLY scary?" Fairly often, these nice comfortable middle class folks will mull that over for a few seconds, and then say, "Yes, I'd like to know what worries you." So I ask you, gentle reader, the same question. If you don't want to know, stop reading now.
Don't scroll down any further if you want the "Blue Pill;" stop NOW.
Seriously, you cannot un-do this decision. Bad dreams lie ahead.
OK, you have been warned. Welcome to my #1 nightmare.
Fukushima, as most people know, is a province on the east coast of the island of Honshu in Japan, which contained, until the earthquake of March 11th 2011, ten light water nuclear power reactors, six at Fukushima Dai-iichi and four at Fukushima Dai-nii. The Dai-iichi site suffered severe damage, first from the effects of the quake itself, and shortly afterwards from the impact of a large tsunami. At the time of the quake, two of the reactors were in cold shutdown and one reactor had been defueled; three were in operation. The end result of this incident was that the three operating reactor cores melted down completely, spewing fission products from 1500 fuel rod assemblies into the atmosphere, contaminating much of northern Honshu, an indeterminate amount of the Pacific Ocean and North America. Radiation continues to be released to this day; depending on the source, this is either the worst or the second worst reactor accident in history, rivaling Chernobyl.
This outcome, contrary to assertions made by the Japanese government and TEPCO, the utility company that owns these facilities, was not unexpected. The potential for damage from an earthquake-generated tsunami had been noted decades previously, as had the vulnerability of the emergency power systems. Further, the utility had been cited for safety violations and for falsification of inspection records. The government, however, refused to acknowledge these issues or take decisive action, and the utility did not either. The probability of a severe event was considered to be too low to be credible, and the consequences were ignored. There is your first lesson right there- beware the normalcy bias.
Fortunately, the rod storage areas did not suffer a complete melt-down, as even though Japan routinely sends old rods out for reprocessing there were about 10,000 fuel rod assemblies in storage at the Dai-iichi site. Had the secondary cooling systems been off-line just a few hours longer, it is possible that some or all of these rod storage pools might have boiled dry, resulting in a melt-down of the rods and much greater contamination. Fukushima, terrible as it was and is, could have been much, much worse; the reactors damaged were relatively small, and the rod storage pools did not melt down. We were, incredible as it may sound, very lucky this was not worse.
And here is yet another of the lessons of Fukushima; because Japan reprocesses their rods, regularly shipping out spent rods, the inventory of spent rods at Fukushima was only about 3 or 4 years worth. If this had been 3 of the 104 nuclear power reactors operating in these united States, there would have been on average about 8 to 10 times as many spent rods stored at the plant, and because rod pool storage is expensive, they are crammed in as tightly as possible without allowing them to go critical again. If rod pool cooling is lost at one of the 40 year old reactors here in these presently united States, a melt-down disaster is much more likely than in Japan. If the reactor is operating at the time of the outage, and melts down itself, then a futher meltdown of the rod pools is highly likely. This means that every one US reactor would distribute more radioactivity than the 3 Fukushima reactors.
It is possible to store older rods in large concrete boxes, called casks, but because of the cost, few utilities do this, and the Nuclear Regulatory Agency does not mandate cask storage. At first, this was in anticipation of establishment of a reprocessing facility which was never built, in part because there is no repository for the large volumes of highly radioactive waste that results from that process, and in part because of the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation. Every day a power reactor runs, it breeds enough plutonium to build a nuclear bomb. Now that Yucca Mountain has been permanently deferred ( a huge mistake) the NRC ought to require that all rods be placed into cask storage as soon as possible. This is one measure I would agree to borrowing money to achieve.
Spent rod pools in these presently united States are not protected by layers of concrete and steel armor, and they are cooled by normal grid power, backed up with a diesel generator. If something happens to the power to the cooling systems, these pools will start to boil within a few days, even if the reactor is not operating. Once the level of the water drops below the rod tops, the exposed rods will quickly overheat, melt and burn, and commence boiling the remaining water even faster. Once the water is gone, or mostly gone, the rods in the former pool will melt into a large red-hot mass of what nuclear engineers call 'corium', which will melt it's way down into the earth below, furiously completing the fission process started in the reactor. Since there is no containment at all, the fission products in those rods will be spewed out into the atmosphere to be carried where ever wind and weather take them.
"But," you object, "Such an interruption of electrical grid power has never happened! What could interrupt grid power?" Two things- one natural and one manmade, and in fact, both of these things have affected the power grid on a smaller scale during the 20th century.
In 1859, Richard Carrington, a 33 year old British amateur astronomer, observed an enormous solar flare. The next day, the Earth suffered the most spectacular geomagnetic storm in modern history. Details here and here. Telegraph offices were set on fire by the electrical discharge from telegraph lines; the voltage induced in various metallic conductors shocked hundreds of people, and auroras were seen in daylight as far south as the Carribean. If such an event were to occur today, the power grid would be disabled for years, if not decades. Both power lines and power transformers could be affected.
The American power grid relies on about 400 very large transformers. None of them are made in North America, and the lead time between order and delivery is 4 to 5 years; it takes about 2 years to complete manufacture of one of these massive units, which weigh hundreds of tons. Assuming we could get credit to make the purchase.
Power lines themselves would be affected as well, and with the chaos that would accompany a wholesale grid power outage it could be months to years before power lines could be replaced, again, assuming that the resources and labor were available.
But here is the thing; my understanding is that these presently united States have less than 60 days of food on hand, with only about 2 days supply within each metropolitan area. If we lost grid power, there would be no traffic controls, no fuel pumps, no lights or television. No water, no sewer. Transportation of food would be difficult to impossible as civil order broke down.
And those nuclear reactors that had been running would start running their diesel generator backups, burning their diesel fuel. In 48 to 72 hours, those generators would run out of fuel unless they had gotten fuel shipments, at which point the rod storage pools would start to boil and the operating reactors would start to melt down. Within less than a month, 90% or more of the population of these presently united states would be dying of starvation, with much of our productive farmland being poisoned by radiation from reactor fission byproducts.
But that isn't the worst case. It is possible, given the present surveillance system that keeps a close eye on the Sun, that we could avoid at least the worst effects of a huge solar storm, shut down and ground the power grid, disconnect the transformers, preposition multiple diesel tankers at each of the 104 power plants and avoid at least the worst effects, or even reconfigure the reactors themselves to run off-grid. Possible, if the various entities involved had a plan and were prepared to react within the time available. Right now they do not and they are not, but this *can* be prevented.
There is another threat to the power grid that is worse. MUCH worse. High altitude nuclear pumped electromagnetic pulse, or EMP for short, is what happens when a nuclear weapon explodes above the Earth's atmosphere. I won't bore you with the details, but EMP can induce virtually instantaneously voltages as high as 100,000 volts per meter in any electrically conductive material. If you want to get more information, William Forstchen has written a novel about it, and hosts a blog about it here. Essentially, every modern microelectronic component in these presently united States might get fried. Computers, radios, televisions, and everything that depends on microelectronics would fail instantly. This would start the clock on the resulting reactor meltdown immediately, and make it impossible to prevent. Forstchen's novel does not take this into account, as it would make poor fiction, but it is probable nonetheless.
It is possible to protect power transformers from this threat, but to do this takes the commitment and the funding, both of which are presently lacking, and it is not economically feasible to protect all the infrastructure dependent on microprocessors. At best the damage would be severe, but at least with a functioning electrical power grid the worst of the consequences could be prevented. The reason I bring this up is that one of the ideas we as patriots ought to promote is the concept of preparing for and preventing the consequences of a major grid failure. As I mentioned before, solar storms have caused localized grid damage and outages before, and the orbital nuclear weapons tests carried out in the late 1950s and early 1960s demonstrated that these events can damage or destroy the power distribution grid.
Fukushima has demonstrated, for all to see, the consequences of loss of grid power to a nuclear power station. History shows us that such grid power interruptions are possible. The combination of a widespread outage with 104 Fukushimas would be a civilization ending event. Make a point of asking your representatives about measures being taken to protect the grid and requiring dry cask storage for spent fuel rods. Whether or not building the present system of uranium powered nuclear reactors was wise or not, we have them, and must needs deal with them. Reducing the risk of a "Black Swan" event would seem to be prudent. With the departure of Congressman Roscoe Bartlett from office, there is now no legislative champion on this issue to be found; we need to make this a groundswell issue.
We also need to give some thought as to how, should the present situation degenerate, we will prevent grid power loss to these 104 reactors. Regardless of how or what you think of the present regime, most sane individuals would agree that wholesale irradiation of these presently united States is a suboptimal outcome. Given the juvenile emotionalism of the forces of tyranny, the grownups may have to do the thinking for them.
It is also worth noting that both the utility and the government lied through their teeth repeatedly during and after the Fukushima crisis and I expect no less from ours. I would not put much weight on official pronouncements during such an event, and would suggest that you have an independent means to determine radiation levels for this and other kinds of radiation hazards. See here for a free primer on radiation defense. So, that's a summary of my #1 nightmare.
Sorry, I really don't have a "blue Pill."
With regards, and apologies, to all who serve the Light,
Edited to add:
I have gotten more email and seen more comment on this issue than I expected. I really was surprised to see this linked at WRSA. Most of the comments are along the line of "We're totally screwed if this happens" which is not the right conclusion to draw.
First off, if you are more than 20 or 30 miles away from a reactor, there is no immediate danger to life. You need to clear the plume, but it won't kill you in an hour as fallout from a fission device will. While with both nuclear devices and power plants, distance is your friend, dealing with a power plant meltdown is different from coping with a nuclear detonation; with a nuclear weapon you need to take cover quickly from the fallout, but the fallout decays very quickly too. With a reactor meltdown, the immediate threat is small in area but gets worse over the first few months as the corium spews into the atmosphere. In the aftermath of a grid failure this will not be your first concern; getting away from hordes of soon to be starving city dwellers is.
Second, the big difference between Japan and the US in terms of their nuclear power policy is that Japan does not store their spent fuel rods on site; they ship them away to be re-processed. We MUST press our government to do the same thing, or at least to remove the old rods from their storage pools and place them into dry cask storage. Almost all of the reactor fuel rods ever used are still stored at the plants at which they were used, and they are crammed into rod storage pools barely big enough to hold them. This is like piling up all the deadwood from all the fallen trees that have dropped in the last 50 years into huge dry piles of wood right underneath our food storage warehouses. We need to reduce the risk from the spent rods, which is an order of magnitude worse than the threat in Japan.
Third, the big killer in any nationwide grid outage event will be the outage itself and the immediate effects of the loss of grid power. Almost all water, sewer and lighting is dependent on grid power, as are the traffic lights. If the outage is caused by an EMP, then the effects will be worse and harder to cope with. Adding the effects of 104 Fukushimas on top of that is, as I put it over at WRSA, like a diarrhea topping on a mountain of manure. Don't get buried by the mountain while dodging the diarrhea.
EMP is a problem, but one that can be dealt with with some forethought, both personally and nationally.
Things that need to be done from a policy standpoint are-
-Dry cask all old rods immediately. Cost is trivial next to the cost of a pool meltdown.
-Require truly robust emergency cooling plans for all operating reactors that take EMP into account. What we have now will not do the job if we get hit. Mechanically injected diesel engine emergency cooling pumps with hand cranked starter motors come to mind.
-Get rid of the stupid EPA regulations that are pushing all engines toward microelectronic fuel injection, making them prime targets for an EMP. (Hear about the ambulance that stopped on the way to the hospital because it needed EPA mandated service?)
-Put protective devices on all grid transformers and long distance lines. RFN. Starting today would not be too soon.
-Move towards smaller generating plants in local areas, to decentralize the grid and reduce the exposure to long transmission lines, which are a risk all by themselves.
-Encourage manufacturing of large grid transformers here in these presently united States. Why let the Germans and the Chinese monopolize these things?
-Do not renew current operating licenses for nuclear plants over 20 years old. There is much better and safer power technology out there, including nuclear, and we ought to use it rather than continuing to use plants with proven difficulties. There are designs for sealed thorium reactors that never need refueling during their operating life, that cannot melt down and that never need an operator. Small, too.
-Repeal the liability limitations for nuclear plants.
I could go on for many many pages, but the basic idea is to press for some easy reforms now, reshape the culture to reduce the risk of uranium/plutonium nuclear power reactors, and reduce the impact of an EMP or Carrington event.
On a personal note, take stock of where you are, and think about where you want to be if there is a grid outage, especially if there is an EMP event.
Look to your basic preps, like food storage.
Hint: Crowds of hungry angry urbanites are not a good place to be, and walking is a slow way to cover ground. Hard to carry supplies on foot, too. EMP resistant vehicles are a good thing to have, and so is night vision. Once you get used to the lack of depth perception, you can do a lot of driving without any visible light with NVGs. You can also make provisions for IR headlights, too. (being solid state, IR LEDs would need to be protected too, but that's not too tough....)
Any problem has solutions, at least partial ones, and if you have the time, you can find those solutions.