Caught With our Plans Down

IN SPACE - JANUARY 23:  In this handout from t...
IN SPACE - JANUARY 23: In this handout from the NOAA/National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center, shows a solar flare erupting from the sun late January 23, 2012. The flare is reportedly the largest since 2005 and is expected to affect GPS systems and other communications when it reaches the Earth's magnetic field in the morning of January 24. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Civilization has become vastly complex, data-and-energy hungry and precariously balanced. We’ve put very many eggs in this basket. But we walk the tightrope of the future with that basket, blindfolded in a howling wind, hoping somehow to maintain our footing and make it to tomorrow. Do NOT look down.

Fukushima’s fate remains clouded in uncertainty, none of the possible outcomes quick or easy to get by without health risks to humans and living things in the sea. That’s just one of many nuclear facilities under failure for lack of adequate planning for a worst case scenario. The worst case happened.

I read a few weeks ago about an even more far-reaching disaster that could happen for lack of worse-case planning. And it turns out, the worst case has already happened, and not all that long ago. It was not such a big deal, because we had not built our house of cards nearly so high. That potential catastrophe was called the Carrington Event. Some authorities predict there is a one in eight chance of a repeat performance by 2020.

The Solar Super Storm 1859, the Carrington Event, set telegraph wires on fire. It would do oh so much worse things if it happened today. Perhaps the worst would be to take nuclear reactor coolant service pumps offline. The good news is that nuclear power plants have backup energy sources on hand. The bad news is that those backups are not designed for the possibility of months or years of the electrical grid being rebuilt after a super solar storm. And more.

“During a geomagnetic storm in 1989, for instance, Canada’s Hydro-Quebec power grid collapsed within 90 seconds, leaving millions without power for up to nine hours.

The potential collateral damage in the U.S. of a Carrington-type solar storm might be between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in the first year alone, with full recovery taking an estimated four to 10 years, according to a 2008 report from the National Research Council.

“A longer-term outage would likely include, for example, disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure; and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration,” the NRC report said.” WiredScience

Estimates are that it would take only a billion dollars to build into existing nuclear power plants the adequate backup in the event of a super solar storm. A mere billion–the cost of a single B-2 bomber.

We may get lucky, and only have earth-source issues to deal with without fearing what might befall us from space. But it sure seems like the odds of calamity are too high from this possible cause to not take out an insurance policy and build in failsafe measures that the folks at Fukushima are wishing they had about now.

400 Chernobyls: Solar Flares, Electromagnetic Pulses and Nuclear Armageddon | TruthOut

Space weather expert discusses solar flares  | LA Times

Carrington Event | Wired Science

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. And VT has rejected Citizens United and stood up to Goliath: Monsanto.

    Makes me wish we had, after all, moved all the way to VT when we were determined decades ago, to move NORTH!