NRC Grants Citizen Petition to Examine Solar Storms

The topic of the impact of solar storms on our interconnected civilization—particularly on the U.S. electric system—is becoming a hot issue, with a number of new studies, warnings and regulatory initiatives rising in recent months. As the year ended, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) joined the growing chorus of concern about how solar flares can bring down critical infrastructure. In the case of the NRC, the issue focuses on protecting spent nuclear fuel pools in the case of a widespread and long-lasting loss of offsite electric power.

In an unusual act, the NRC staff agreed to consider a citizen group’s petition for rulemaking on the issue of how solar storms could disrupt cooling of spent fuel pools. A small group based in Nashua, N.H., the Foundation for Resilient Societies, filed the petition in March 2011, just as the world was focusing on the nuclear catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear station, including fears that the spent fuel pools at the four damaged units had lost cooling water.

But Thomas Popik, an MIT-trained engineer who is head of the foundation, said in an interview that his group was concerned about the issue of solar storms and spent fuel well ahead of the events in Japan. “The entire petition was written before Fukushima,” he said. “It was ready to go” and the connection to the events in Japan was simply fortuitous.

The decision to grant the rulemaking request from Popik’s foundation was unusual, as the NRC has not typically granted petitions from non-government citizens groups. According to the NRC, the agency has received 116 rulemaking petitions since 2000. It has granted only the Popik request. The agency has denied 55 rulemaking petitions, while petitioners have withdrawn two. Another 29 are still under agency consideration.

Popik’s petition raised the specter of a sustained loss of off-site power amid a solar storm and accompanying loss of back-up power. The petition says, “Current design basis for nuclear power plants and associated spent fuel pools assume reliable and quickly restored commercial grid power. In the event of a long-term loss of commercial grid power, extending beyond a month, it is likely that water in spent fuel pools would heat up and boil-off, fuel rods would become uncovered by water, zirconium cladding would catch fire, and large amounts of dangerous radionuclides would be released into the atmosphere.”

In a press release announcing it has accepted the petition, the NRC said, “The first step will be monitoring the progress of several Fukushima-related activities designed to enhance plants’ abilities to keep spent fuel pools safe. If the staff concludes these activities fall short of resolving the petition’s concerns, the agency will work to develop a technical basis for the petition’s suggested rule change. If such a basis cannot be established, the NRC will update the public on why the petition’s suggestions were not adopted.”

The NRC decision comes in the midst of considerable industry interest in solar storms, as the 11-year solar storm cycle moves into an active period. In granting the Popik petition, the NRC said, “The issues raised in this petition span the regulatory domains and oversight of several government agencies and an industry organization,” specifically the NRC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and the North American Electric Reliability Corp (NERC).

FERC last fall proposed a rulemaking ordering NERC to put grid protections in place to mitigate damage from geomagnetic disturbances. The FERC proposed rule came following an April 2012 technical conference that outlined some of the damaging effects that a surge of geomagnetic radiation can deliver to the high-voltage grid.

In its October proposed rule [Docket No. RM12-22-000], FERC said it perceives a gap in the existing reliability standards for the electricity system. While NERC has sought to downplay the impact of an electromagnetic assault from the sun, claiming that it will not cause catastrophic damage (also perhaps fearing the additional workload brought on by a new round of standard setting), FERC brushed this cavil aside. The commission wrote that, “our proposed action is warranted by even the lesser consequence of a projected widespread blackout without long-term, significant damage to the Bulk-Power System.”

As the NRC was releasing its decision to look at solar storms, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence released a new report on world trends that identifies the phenomenon as a potential “black swan” that could profoundly disrupt most predictions for what the future will bring. The report—“Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds”—observes, “Solar geomagnetic storms could knock out satellites, the electric grid, and many sensitive electronic devices. The recurrence intervals of crippling solar geomagnetic storms, which are less than a century, now pose a substantial threat because of the world’s dependence on electricity.”

—Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor