Warehouse E

If The Lights Go Out

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Flirting With Disaster On The Electric


By James Donahue

As we were during the days of cheap oil, Americans appear blindly unaware of a potential looming disaster that looms on the nation’s electric grid. Yet when the lights go out for even a few hours, all life as we know it grinds to a halt.

Consider how cities clogged with millions of people might deal with a black-out lasting weeks or even years.

After several major blackouts that knocked out portions of the nation’s decaying grid system in recent years, the nuclear disasters at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and the growing number of natural disasters from tornados, hurricanes and flooding, analysts are warning that there is a crying need for a general overhaul and improvement of the U.S. electrical grid.

Indeed, most of the nation’s power is coming from old and outdated coal-fired generating plants. This has been considered a problem because the coal fires are among the major sources of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas blamed as a contributing factor in climate change.

Since Fukushima, Japan has lost more than half of its source of power from nuclear generating plants. Thus the country is resorting to the older coal-fired plants. One report stated that “with just two of its 54 nuclear reactors in operation, Japan is importing coal and oil as if there is no tomorrow.” And consequently, Japan is no longer meeting its plan to reduce carbon emissions under the Kyoto protocol.

In the United States there are 104 nuclear generating plants on line, nearly all of them at least 30 years old. Because of the extent of the disasters at Fukushima and Chernobyl, there has been continued controversy over whether any new plants will ever be constructed in this country.

A new report from the Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment determines that the cost of the safety measures needed for existing and new nuclear generating plants will make this power source too costly without government subsidies. With the mood of Congress this election year, the concept of subsidizing nuclear plants is probably off the table.

After coming to power, President Barack Obama has called for a major overhaul of the nation’s electrical grid system as well as a restoration of a general infrastructure of roads, bridges, sewer and water systems that are in a serious state of decay. But a Republican dominated Congress has been caught up in the politics of high finance and is vowing to reduce government spending. Money for such projects has been blocked. Because of all this, the United States is a nation on the brink of a possible electrical meltdown.

A copyright report by Matthew Stein that recently appeared on the Truthout website warned that the new extreme solar activity may be an unexpected threat to the nation’s electric grid system. Stein wrote that some solar storms, like the extreme storm that swept the Earth in 1921, might have the potential of collapsing much of the nation’s grid.

Stein also notes that a nuclear bomb attack from the air also would knock out the grid system.

The grid system, just for the record, is a complex linking of all of the nation’s electric power systems designed to provide back-up power in the event of a regional disaster or system break-down.

People are more dependent on the grid than they may realize. It maintains food production and distribution, telecommunications, Internet, medical services, military defense, transportation, government, operation of water and sewage treatment systems, refrigeration, pumping gasoline at the local service station, and powering our homes and businesses. If the grid goes down, all of this comes to an abrupt stop.

As engineers sadly discovered at the Fukushima facility, after the plants were hit by both a major earthquake and destructive tsunami, even nuclear power plants are critically dependant on the grid. Backup generators kept the reactor cores             cooled until the diesel oil ran out, then the pumps stopped, the cooling system failed, and the reactor cores went into catastrophic meltdown.

Structural engineers are now realizing that the disaster at Fukushima could also have happened at any of the U.S. plants if the grid fails because of natural disaster.

One problem is that the electrical grid system and the various power plants are all dependant on modern computers to remain strategically connected and coordinated. And the computers are equipped with sensitive microchips that could be fried by any kind of power surge delivered via those interconnected wire circuits. This is why Stein worries about an airborne nuclear attack or a major solar storm’s possible effect on the grid system.

There are solutions, and the cost, when compared to the money Congress is willing to spend on military bombers, ships and its massive war machine is ridiculously low.

During his first term, President Obama successful got Congress to pass a stimulus bill that included $4.5 billion to upgrade the nation’s electricity grid. Part of the money was used for technological research at ways to protect the system from cyber attacks. But this was just a fraction of the money needed to get our electrical system upgraded to meet modern demands.

A study by the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Commission has determined that it would cost about $1 billion to install protective devices and procedures to protect the US grid and protect its extra high voltage (EHV) transformers from this kind of damage.

Stein explained: “For the cost of a single B-2 bomber or a tiny fraction of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bank bailout, we could invest in preventative measures to avert what might well become the end of life as we know it.”

The nation is now facing harsh economic times, with a large number of people either out of work, working part time or on low paying jobs. Our national debt is counted in the trillions. Congressional Republicans are demanding a roll-back in federal expenditures. With looming cuts in education, health care, welfare and other basic needs, there is little chance in 2013, or possibly years to come for federal dollars to help rebuild any part of the crumbling infrastructure.