Opinion

Averting the Doomsday Scenario of a National Electric-Grid Failure: A Case for Advanced Nuclear Energy

Imagine a power outage that extends from the California coast to Miami Beach, and from Seattle to Boston. Imagine the disruption in food chains, medical and emergency services. In the weeks that it would take to restore power, thousands of Americans would likely die from disease and starvation.

As unfathomable as this may seem, the Congressional EMP Commission reports that a nationwide blackout of the electric power grid and grid-dependent critical infrastructures — i.e., communications, transportation, sanitation, food, and water supply — could last a year or longer. The U.S. population could find itself living in conditions like the 1800s.

Fortunately, the protection of the electric grid from such an ominous scenario can be achieved if we are proactive, and advanced nuclear power can uniquely contribute to the solution.

Recent power outages in Texas offer a glimpse into this much larger risk to our nation. Our national energy grid and the other 15 critical infrastructure sectors that rely on energy are susceptible to common cause failure. Although unlikely, there are known scenarios that can potentially impact the entire United States’ power distribution for long periods of time. These “long-term outages” could be disastrous and pose an existential threat to the United States.

Our electric grid is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. The NERC writes grid standards, while the FERC, a government agency, approves the NERC’s standards. This hybrid approach to regulating is uniquely flawed but has had limited impactful criticism, primarily due to lobbyists and profit-making being prioritized over public safety. A consequence of this arrangement is that the U.S. bulk power system is not adequately protected against a strong geomagnetic disturbance or electromagnetic pulse, which are known possible triggers of large scale, long-term blackout.

While the anticipated social unrest that would result from a large-scale event is debated, the risk of occurrence is not science fiction. Congressional studies indicate that a single nuclear detonation, strategically situated at a precise location and altitude could result in a nation-wide blackout for periods lasting months to years. And a geomagnetic-induced outage actually occurred in Quebec on March 13, 1989, when a solar flare generated a magnetic disturbance resulted in the blackout of the entire Quebec power grid within two minutes.

While an electric power system can fail quickly, restoration is more complex and can take time. Fortunately, in 1989, the U.S utilities in nearby New York and New England did not suffer a blackout and were available to help restore the Hydro-Quebec grid.

The likelihood of a precisely positioned nuclear detonation is low, and any impactful solar storm is estimated every hundred years or so. Yet, hopefully, society has learned from this past year to better prepare for the unlikely and unexpected. As a side note, a ‘biological disease outbreak – pandemic influenza’ is one of the 15 Department of Homeland Security’s national planning scenarios, which in 2005 estimated 87,000 fatalities, 300,000 hospitalizations, $70-$160B in economic impact, and several months of recovery time.

Given the inaccuracy of a speculated pandemic as compared to the reality of COVID-19, how confident is anyone in the economic and personal cost, or recovery times, if large portions of our grid are damaged or need replacing?

Another consideration worth noting is that most power plants require electricity to start back up. If the entire grid becomes unavailable, there is a need for an external energy source, or a “blackstart” capability to restore power to the grid. Our shift toward natural gas poses a problem in that the fuel supply relies on a massive underground transmission system that could easily be disrupted in a widespread power outage.

So, we really are in a bit of a predicament. Even considering the major outages in the Northeast in 2003 and more recently in Texas, we really have been lucky. The United States has yet to experience a true nationwide blackout, and we are not doing enough to prepare. The potential cost is too high. In 2019, the president signed an executive order requiring coordination and planning in response to an EMP/GMD event. However, progress remains slow, and there is minimal effort regarding protection.

One promising idea is the use of nuclear power to serve as a national critical asset, which if adequately protected could provide blackstart capability to the grid in the event of a contiguous failure. The use of nuclear energy is also well-timed with the Biden administration’s new 2050 carbon-free energy goal. Nuclear energy contributes nearly 20 percent of U.S electricity and 50 percent of the carbon-free energy while providing the highest capacity factor compared to other energy sources. Yet, the existing 94 nuclear power plants in the United States are required to shut down in the event of a major grid disturbance, and need the grid to restart.

However, new small modular reactor designs operate on passive safety systems and are more agile. This means that not only is it impossible for SMRs to melt down even if there is no operator action, but they can also continue partial operation if the grid loses power. Furthermore, if minor electrical protections are added before they are built, these SMRs could ensure a national blackstart capability. It is a win-win: clean, safe and reliable energy that can also serve to help the nation more quickly recover from a potentially apocalyptic or doomsday scenario.

The likelihood is low, but the possibility is real. Inaction is not worth the risk. Our country must think more holistically by thoughtfully preparing for the possibility of a nationwide long-term outage. SMRs are emerging into the market and have the unique functionality that could enhance the resilience of the electricity supply while helping to deliver on our carbon neutrality goals.

 

Camille Palmer is an associate professor in the School of Nuclear Science and Engineering at Oregon State University and a public voices fellow through the OpEd Project.

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