I’m fortunate to have two different friends in the power industry that are also associated with the nuclear end of things. I was pleasantly surprised earlier this evening to learn that two things are true. First, a fully-loaded 747 with full fuel load, passengers and luggage, could hit a reactor building directly, and they’re designed to not melt down. Would there be local issues, yes, probably. But not a core meltdown, thus no widespread, even worldwide disaster. Second, in the event of total power failure (grid as well as facility auxiliary emergency power), US reactors MUST conform to some standards that require the fuel rods to drop out of the core. In other words, they’re held up by means that include electrical power. Without power, they drop down. Would the water be hot? Oh yeah! But a meltdown would not occur.
Of course, that’s all theoretical, because it hasn’t actually happened. And design flaws are sometimes discovered that are catastrophic but entirely unanticipated even though believed to have been accounted for. But fundamentally, US reactors (as well as many around the world, but obviously not all) are specifically designed to deal with total loss of all electrical power as well as a direct hit from a 747. From the source I called and spoke with tonight, I have zero concern that I was being fed the lying “official” answer – I’m fully comfortable that these were two friends just talking honestly.
The downside is from the other question: is the grid itself protected against a major solar event or an EMP from a high altitude nuclear burst? No. They can’t The meltdown of the major power transformers that you see in power substations could not be prevented in that kind of event, and there is no storehouse holding spare large transformers. To order new ones would take several years just for a few – and who could manufacture them if THEY didn’t have power as well (such as a major solar event like the Carrington event in 1859)? And if we had thousands of them go out across the country at once, assuming we even figured out how to communicate internationally to try to order more, it would take a long, long, long time for us to ever get the major transformers in place to restart the grid. Plus, all the electronic devices we’re used to using would be destroyed as well, so we’d be starting from scratch on designing and manufacturing everything we take for granted today. There is no defense against a catastrophic EMP or solar event.
The upside of that is what would happen to the economies of the world if the US was suddenly no longer in the mix, but was suddenly an early 19th century nation with 300+ million people that did NOT possess the living skills of the people that knew how to live in 1800. If the US goes completely down, it would be catastrophic for the rest of the world as well. So, any semi-sane regime has a major incentive to NOT nuke us with an EMP device over the central US at 250 miles of altitude. What to do about the Little Prince in the DPRK? The answers to those kinds of questions really don’t matter, because we don’t have a perfect world where we can guard against every possibility. The odds are that some of our worst fears are less likely than we thought. I know I was somewhat surprised tonight to learn that some of those scenarios weren’t realistic to worry about for the most part.
Now one more downside. If anyone hasn’t been following the fact that we’re in a major transition period with respect to magnetic polar shift, we are. This came from the person I talked with tonight, though I had been aware of it already. I haven’t seen or looked at any info on this subject in probably over a year. But I knew that, for example, the magnetic north pole has been moving at a very significant and accelerating rate over the past few years. And the strength of the earth’s magnetic field is decreasing. This is normal. The poles have “swapped ends” many times in the earth’s history. And it’s unlikely that we’ll live long enough to experience the earth’s two magnetic poles actually swap places the next time it happens – though we’re in the transition period (which is many, many years in the making). The real danger is that without a strong magnetic field around the earth, we’re more vulnerable to what’s coming at us from space. And one of those things is the effects of solar storms. Right now, we can (and have even recently) survive an X-class solar storm. But we’re moving into a period where it will take less in the way of strength in a solar eruption to do us some serious damage. Whereas only Quebec, Canada, lost its grid in 1989, and it wasn’t long-term catastrophic, we’re more vulnerable today in 2015 than we were in 1989 from that particular solar storm. Our protection is reduced, and will only reduce further from here, with a possible (probable?) eventual swapping of magnetic poles again (has happened a number of times in earth’s history).
Bottom line: some of our fears are not worth losing sleep about. And some of the things that COULD happen, will be so catastrophic around the world, that our basic concern will be basic survival altogether, with everyone else in exactly the same boat. There won’t be another country to travel to for refuge. So for me, I ain’t worryin’ about that. I can’t do anything about that anyway, and worrying about that which I cannot control, only loses me quality of life right now.
So, in the immortal words of that great philosopher, Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t worry, be happy!” It might not get as bad as we worry about…. (And we plan for what we can, so we don’t HAVE to worry unnecessarily. As has been said elsewhere, “If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear.”