Add to the list of mortal threats to the continued existence of the industrial age another inevitable, natural event to which we have exposed the throat of our machine. You may know about the threat of solar storms — I wrote about it here in January of 2011 (“A Solar Powered Blackout”) — but did you know that one of the consequences of a strong one will be the moral equivalent of a nuclear war — a kind of Chernobyl times 100?
To review, briefly: The kind of solar storm that is dangerous to Earth is an interplanetary eruption of plasma and electromagnetic radiation called a coronal mass eruption, or CME. CMEs appear to be related to, and to have causes similar to, solar flares. Both CMEs and solar flares tend to appear in and around sunspots. During periods of elevated solar activity, like now, there are on average three CMEs per day. Beyond that, we don’t know much.
Except that when a CME occurs on a portion of the sun facing earth, and the eruption scores a direct hit on our planet’s electromagnetic field, there is, as they say, hell to pay. For most of us. Australian Bushmen who have kept to the old ways, Old-Order Mennonites and other dwellers off the grid who are not flying, at sea or in cities will be fine. The rest of us will first enjoy a spectacular display of the Northern and Southern Lights, and then lose our electricity, GPS, cell phone and satellite communications, broadcast services, Internet, air traffic control — and our composure.
I thought previously that the worst case of this scenario was the destruction of the grid. We have strung so much wire, which acts as an antenna for collecting the incoming electromagnetic energy of the eruption, that the storm will fry huge transformers and massive generators whose replacement will not be possible for at least three years. That’s not for all of them, that’s for one of them — it’s the length of time right now, in normal times, between order and delivery. (In a time, by the way, in which the factories have electricity.)
But wait, there’s more.
Among the facilities that will lose all electric power for a very long time will be the country’s 65 nuclear power plants and their 104 reactors. As we learned at Fukushima last year, a nuclear power plant that has no power cannot run the pumps that cool its reactors, and they are going to melt down and erupt massive amounts of radiation into their surroundings, which is to say 31 of our 50 states. These power plants are required to have backup generators to prevent such a catastrophe, with enough fuel to run them for one week.
Which means that one week after the magnificent aurora kicked off by the direct-hit CME, while we’re trying to deal with our fried electronics, dead satellites and disabled grid, 60 or so nuclear power plants will lose their ability to cool 100 or so reactors and the tanks holding the spent fuel rods. The reactors will heat up, boil off their water and start to melt down. The reactors will go first and fastest, but the spent fuel rods will eventually emit far more radiation because there are so many of them. Because we have been enjoying the power from nuclear power plants for over half a century without ever figuring out what we were going to do with their radioactive waste.
When will all this happen? As far as we know the eruption of CMEs is a random thing, occurring over the surface of an enormous globe, spewing in all directions, while we sit on a very small globe a very long way away in one specific direction. So the law of averages tells us two things: 1) it won’t happen very often, and 2) given enough time it will happen. Oh, and one more thing: it is as likely to happen tomorrow as 100 years from tomorrow.
And there we’ll be, on some nice day, living a perfect demonstration of a central thesis of my book Brace for Impact: every increase in the economies of scale beloved by industry has a dark, unacknowledged twin — concentration of risk. Industrialization usually milks all the profit from the economies of scale before the bill comes due for the risk.
Like the Native Americans who adopted steel knives, iron pots and firearms as the basis of their everyday lives before realizing the long-term hazard of being dependent on them, we have allowed our lives to become utterly dependent on an electric foundation that can be vaporized in a heartbeat.
[I am indebted to Matthew Stein’s recent article on Alternet for opening my eyes to the nuclear dimension of this issue. For updates on this and other Daily Impact stories, and for short takes on other subjects, check out The Editor’s Log.]