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Pry: Let's Count The Way to Take Out a Nuclear Reactor

A new report published by the U.S. Air Force’s Electromagnetic Defense Task Force (EDTF) recommends giving highest priority to protecting nuclear power reactors from natural and nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP). According to the report, if EMP causes a protracted blackout, the reactors can “go Fukushima” and spread radioactivity across vast swaths of the United States.

An EMP attack would entail detonating a nuclear weapon over the U.S. at high-altitude, in outer space, generating an electromagnetic field damaging to electronics over vast areas, potentially over all North America, if a single weapon is burst 300-400 kilometers high.

The Congressional EMP Commission assesses Russia, China and North Korea have plans for and are presently capable of executing a nuclear EMP attack. The EMP Commission also assesses that terrorists could make an EMP attack, if they are given or acquire a nuclear weapon.

Natural EMP results from solar storms, like the 1989 Hydro-Quebec Storm that blacked-out half of Canada for a day. The U.S. Air Force EDTF, like the Congressional EMP Commission, is concerned about the recurrence of a solar super-storm, like the 1859 Carrington Event, that could cause a protracted blackout of electric grids and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures worldwide.

A Carrington Event is expected to recur every 100-150 years. A coronal mass ejection capable of causing a Carrington Event narrowly missed the Earth in July 2012. NASA warns another Carrington Event is inevitable, and estimates likelihood as 12 percent per decade.

Non-nuclear EMP weapons, cyberattacks, and physical sabotage can also cause protracted blackout of the national electric grid, putting nuclear reactors at risk.

The report: “In a worst-case scenario, all reactors within an affected region could be impacted simultaneously. In the United States, this would risk meltdowns at approximately 60 sites and 99 nuclear reactors, with more than 60,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel in storage pools.”

In the event of a protracted nationwide blackout, “the ability to provide continued electrical cooling for nuclear power plant reactors and spent fuel pools would be at the top of electricity restoration priorities within hours.”

Recovery prospects would be bleak. “Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to aid distressed nuclear power stations are presently very limited and wholly dependent on logistics that would likely suffer widespread regional or national interruption, thereby inhibiting response and recovery.”

Moreover, “Where the military is concerned, little planning has been done to mitigate potential impact on service members, installations, or critical missions that could be affected by areas of radiation arising from reactor or spent fuel pool leakage. The national response plan for distributing medications from stockpiles needed to aid recovery efforts is also dependent on logistics for distribution.”

Protracted blackout of nuclear reactors “poses a risk of radioactive contamination to the Continental United States with consequentially disastrous impact to the economy and public health.”

The report warns that U.S. nuclear reactors have the same design and the same vulnerabilities to protracted loss of power as the Fukushima nuclear reactors that exploded as a result of a protracted blackout caused by a tsunami on March 11, 2011:

It is important to note that the Fukushima facility employed General Electric reactors; Japan’s regulatory structure was modeled after the United States’; and the plant’s staff were trained in accordance with U.S. standards and procedures; everything was state-of-the-art and in line with best U.S. practices.

The risk of U.S. nuclear reactors “going Fukushima” can be very significantly reduced by storing spent nuclear fuel in dry cask storage, instead of cooling ponds. “Estimates indicate that by placing spent fuel in dry cask storage, the United States can diminish overall loss of containment risks to North America by as much as 75 percent in terms of human impact, landmass contamination, and radiation released.”

The report recommends EMP hardening nuclear reactor controls, emergency generators, and “creating accessible fuel stores in excess of seven days’ needs.”

The Congressional EMP Commission and Ambassador Henry Cooper, an adviser to the commission and former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative, have also recommended giving high priority to protecting nuclear reactors from EMP.

Protecting nuclear reactors would not only eliminate the risk from radioactive contamination, but would convert the reactors into islands of survivability that could enable rapid recovery of the national power grid from EMP and other threats.

Policymakers would be wise to take these realities into account.

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry served as chief of staff of the Congressional EMP Commission, on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee and at the CIA.