EMP Attack and Solar Storms, Part II: Cascading Failures and Nuclear Meltdown

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Some time ago, we discussed the broad implications of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, such as that from an aerial detonation of a nuclear device, and the similar effects of a large solar storm or coronal mass ejection from the sun.  In that discussion, we looked at the overall aspects of the crisis, including interruptions to our trucking industry, which in turn would represent a massive failure in our food, health, and fuel delivery systems.  Other topics included traffic gridlock, potential vehicle failure, and briefly, what to expect after the lights go out.

In Part II of this guide, we will dive into a more technical look at what even the most minor of electrical hiccups and disturbances can do to our delicate, computerized world, as well as explore how interconnected our society truly is.  However, in order to adequately set the stage for understanding the grave threat under conditions in which all of our infrastructures fall prey to simultaneous failure, it is imperative to understand that the “vulnerability of the whole — of all the highly interlocked critical infrastructures — may be greater than the sum of the vulnerability of its parts.” (1)

If a singular system goes down, it can result in a cascade of failures across the spectrum, from communications, to banking, to government services, and even water treatment and sanitation.  While many articles paint a bleak overall picture of a few singular failures, there are some extremely dangerous situations that are often overlooked, especially within the oil, gas, and nuclear sectors.

Many of these modern marvels rely on remote systems to operate, acquire data, and perform mundane actions, which are not only grid-dependent, but highly sensitive to electrical disturbances.  In particular, the 2008 Congressional EMP Commission thought it important to single out the growth and common infrastructural infiltration of one particular transformative technology; “the development of automated monitoring and control systems— the ubiquitous robots of the modern age known as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems.”(1)

What is a SCADA?

SCADAs are electronic control systems that may be used for data acquisition and control over large and geographically distributed infrastructure systems. They find extensive use in critical infrastructure applications such as electrical transmission and distribution, water management, and oil and gas pipelines. SCADA technology has benefited from several decades of development. It has its genesis in the telemetry systems used by the railroad and aviation industries.(1)

A broad function of a SCADA system is to remotely monitor the operational state of a physical system.  It accomplishes this monitoring by providing an ongoing reporting of parameters that either characterize the system’s performance, such as voltage or currents developed in an electric power plant, flow volume in a gas pipeline, and net electrical power delivered or received by a regional electrical system, or by monitoring environmental parameters such as temperature in a nuclear power plant and sending an alarm when certain operating conditions are exceeded.

The supervisory control function of a SCADA reflects the ability of these devices to actively control the operation of the system by adjusting its input or output.

For example, should an electrical generating plant fail through loss of a critical hardware component or industrial accident, the monitoring SCADA will detect the loss, issue an alert to the appropriate authorities, and issue commands to other generating plants under its control to increase their power output to match the desired load again. All of these actions take place automatically, within seconds, and without a human being involved in the immediate control loop.1

When one of these systems malfunctions, they often require a technician to physically go to some remote location and reset it, power it back on, diagnose the issue, or flip a switch.  While there are entire career fields devoted to resetting these systems, there are only so many technicians in a given geographical region. As we have witnessed time and time again, both the private and public sector have had difficulty in staffing responses to natural disasters that only effect a relatively small region, such as hurricanes, so with a robust EMP attack or severe electromagnetic disturbance (EMD), there are likely not enough technicians and engineers in the entire world to handle the issue in a timely manner.

If the electromagnetic disturbance impacted a large swath of the United States, it could take years before workers are able to respond to every remote terminal, let alone handle the logistics of commanding a small army of technicians having little to no communication, hampered fuel delivery systems, and a society that can barely handle one week without power, as seen during both Hurricane Sandy and Katrina.

The Consequences

The real dangers arise when extrapolating what will happen when oilfield pipelines fail to open and close properly, when nuclear power plants can no longer regulate their temperatures, and waste water treatment plants fail to deliver.  Oil and gas refineries, compressors, pipelines, nuclear reactors, and electrical plants will cease to operate due to a multitude of cascading failures, which in turn will shut down most powered communication, as well as cause extensive physical damage.

2008 EMP Commission:

To provide insight into the potential impact of these EMP-induced electronic system malfunctions, one can consider the details of historical events. In these cases, similar (and arguably less severe) system malfunctions have produced consequences in situations that are far too complex to predict beforehand using a model or analysis.

Another important observation is that these incidents are seldom the result of a single factor. Rather they are a combination of unexpected events that, only in hindsight, are easily related to the impact. This is not surprising given the complexity of the systems involved.

Carlsbad Pipeline Incident

On August 19, 2000, an explosion occurred on one of three adjacent large natural gas pipelines near Carlsbad, New Mexico, operated by the El Paso Natural Gas Company. The pipelines supply consumers and electric utilities in Arizona
and Southern California. Twelve people, including five children, died as a result of the explosion. The explosion left an 86-foot-long crater. After the pipeline failure, the Department of Transportation’s Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) ordered the pipeline to be shut down. The explosion happened because of failures in maintenance and loss of situational awareness, conditions that would be replicated by data acquisition disruptions caused by an EMP event.

Pembroke Refinery Incident

On July 24, 1994, a severe thunderstorm passed over the Pembroke refinery in the United Kingdom. Lightning strikes resulted in a 0.4 second power loss and subsequent power dips throughout the refinery. Consequently, numerous
pumps and overhead fin-fan coolers tripped repeatedly, resulting in the main crude column pressure safety valves lifting and major upsets in the process units in other refinery units, including those within the fluid catalytic cracking complex (FCC).

There was an explosion in the FCC unit that shook windows, doors, and damaged properties within a 10 mile radius, and was heard up to 40 miles away. The explosion was caused by flammable hydrocarbon liquid continuously being pumped into a process vessel that, because of a valve malfunction, had its outlet closed. The control valve was actually shut when the control system indicated that it was open. The malfunctioning process control system did not allow the refinery operators to contain the situation.

As a result of this incident, an estimated 10 percent of the total refining capacity in the United Kingdom was lost until this complex was returned to service. The business loss is estimated at $70 million, which reflects 4.5 months of downtime. The disturbances caused by the lightning strikes — power loss and degradation — would also result from an EMP event.

When even a handful of these critical infrastructures go down, it places other systems that might have not been afflicted into overload states in an effort to make up for the loss, which can result in further failures.

Once electrical generation is down, communication is lost. Those not in the directly-impacted areas will still experience the ill effects of these failures due to so many systems being interwoven; emergency services and hospitals will only operate for a few days on back-up power and limited fuel supplies, and once the banks close their doors due to their main networks and finance hubs being hampered, the entire economy ceases to exist for all general intents and purposes. ATMs and credit would be worthless, if functional at all. (see graph here)

Interconnected Systems Click to Enlarge

Interconnected Systems
Click to Enlarge

With banking, communications, and electrical generation crippled, government services will no longer be able to issue financial assistance those who depend on it to live, nor will central governments be able to legislate efficiently.  There will be no ambulances or firetrucks after a few days.  The stock market will close, cellular tower operation will cease after 48-hours on back-up batteries, and based upon previous disasters, one can expect a large number of police, government, and military forces to abandon their posts within a few short days, if not sooner.(2)

Fuel: Our Achilles Heel

One of the weakest points in our fragile system will be the availability of fuel; rail, truck, airlines, maritime, back-up electrical  generators, and more, will be affected. According to the American Truckers Associations report

Service station fuel supplies will start to run out in just one to two days. An average service station requires a delivery every 2.4 days. Based on these statistics, the busiest service stationscould run out of fuel within hours of a truck stoppage, with the remaining stations following within one to two days.

Significant [food] shortages will occur in as little as one to three days, especially for perishable items following a national emergency.

Without truck transportation and fuel, healthcare will be immediately jeopardized. Many hospitals have moved to a Just-in-Time inventory system, similar to grocery stores. These systems depend on trucks to deliver needed supplies within hours of order placement. [Within a short time period], hospitals would be unable to supply critical patient care.

Pharmacy stocks of prescription drugs will be depleted quickly.

In regards to sanitation and waste removal, Americans will be literally buried in garbage with serious health and environmental consequences within days of a fuel shortage.

Nuclear Armageddon

Within our highly technical world, there are a myriad of chain reactions that most of us can not even fathom, and at the top of that list is nuclear power plants.

In the United States alone, there are currently 104 nuclear reactors situated across 65 operating sites.(3)

During the March 11th, 2011, earthquake that disrupted the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, it was not the actual quake that led to the catastrophic meltdown; instead, it was the loss of their back-up power generation that was knocked out by the subsequent tsunami waves. Without power, the plant was unable to keep their containment pools effectively cooled, which arguably pose a much higher threat to safety than the actual nuclear reactor core.

Containment pools store spent fuel rods, which have already been used in the reactor, but are still incredibly “hot” – both temperature-wise, as well as their radioactive level. These rods typically spend several years in super-chilled pools of water to cool them down to levels that can be contained within concrete storage locations.

“Unfortunately, the world’s nuclear power plants, as they are currently designed, are critically dependent upon maintaining connection to a functioning electrical grid, for all but relatively short periods of electrical blackouts, in order to keep their reactor cores continuously cooled so as to avoid catastrophic reactor core meltdowns and spent fuel rod storage pond fires.

If an extreme GMD [geomagnetic disturbance] were to cause widespread grid collapse (which it most certainly will), in as little as one or two hours after each nuclear reactor facility’s backup generators either fail to start, or run out of fuel, the reactor cores will start to melt down. After a few days without electricity to run the cooling system pumps, the water bath covering the spent fuel rods stored in “spent fuel ponds” will boil away, allowing the stored fuel rods to melt down and burn(4).

Since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) currently mandates that only one week’s supply of backup generator fuel needs to be stored at each reactor site, it is likely that after we witness the spectacular celestial light show from the next extreme GMD, we will have about one week in which to prepare ourselves for Armageddon.” – Matt Stein, author of “When Technology Fails”

As Mr. Stein points out, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires only one week’s worth of fuel to be stored for each reactor site. Currently, many of the logistical points of that plan depend on interconnected systems that will all be severely decimated in a large-scale electromagnetic event. The refineries will undoubtedly suffer damages that either slow or cease normal fuel refinement procedures, which in turn have a troubling effect on not only the price of fuel, but the availability of it for the trucking industry which delivers additional fuel to the reactors.

The United States of America maintains top-secret continuity plans that, without a doubt, take most of this into account. We have strategic stockpiles of fuel, medicines, and crude oil that can be handled at a moment’s notice by both public and private sector entities. However, with such widespread, catastrophic failures, as stated previously, there is only so much that can be done from a logistical standpoint and there is a finite supply, under the control of impaired communications. The subsequent threat of armed hijacking of fuel loads should also be taken into account.

There will be certain reactors and geographic regions that will have to be “written off” and chalked up as a loss as national planners determine future priorities.

Half-Life and What it Means For You

Many are aware of the troubling level of radiation that was released during the Fukushima event; imagine that 100-fold. There are very few places immune from the deadly effects of over 100 nuclear reactors melting down, not to mention the length of time needed for radiation levels to settle down to tolerable levels. The average citizen will not be privy to these well-protected locations and will be left to fend for themselves.

“The reason the contamination is so long-lasting is that Cesium 137, the most dangerous isotope released in a severe accident, has a half-life of 30 years. A contaminated area — one that was, say, four times above the maximum permissible post-accident radiation level for human habitation — would stay above that level for nearly a human lifetime.” (5) – Victor Gilinsky, former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Can you reasonably sustain yourself, or your family, for one year while having zero contact with the outside world? Can you do this for sixty years?

With a one week notice, are you prepared to uproot your entire family and history, in order to escape heavy levels of radiation? How will you relocate while under such a National Emergency? The Executive Office has issued dozens of Executive Orders detailing the federal commandeering of all roadways, vehicles, fuel, food, and communications in the event of such an emergency. With the service stations empty, and the grocery shelves bare, how will you provide for yourself? In a social meltdown, how will you defend your loved ones for extended periods of time from not only the radiation dangers, but armed encounters or large groups of criminals? Do you even have equipment that can detect deadly levels of radiation?

Electromagnetic disturbances are a very real threat, and leave many who understand the massive failures it can cause in total awe of its destructive power.

There are many articles scattered across the internet and in books that warn of catastrophic failure, and fuel shortages, or compare the event to living in the 1800′s. I assure you, the threat that electromagnetic events hold far surpasses those whimsical ideas of camping in the woods, or living a happy life in the mountains, free of mainstream television and modern-day inconveniences.

If such an event were to happen, it will turn the entire planet into a living nightmare.

Kevin Hayden is a former New Orleans police officer-turned-truth seeker.  He endured Hurricane Katrina’s chaos and societal collapse in the days following and after 5 years in New Orleans, moved to Oklahoma.  There, he was an investigator for Big Oil, appeared on numerous radio and television shows, and started helping people become better prepared for disasters. Kevin currently operates www.TruthisTreason.net and promotes education regarding our monetary, food, and foreign policies while building an off-grid shipping container homestead.

Partial source list for this article:

1 2008 EMP Commission, Executive Report, Chapter 1 – Infrastructure Commonalities, pgs. 2, 3, 10, 11, 12

2 “Law & Disorder – Transcript”PBS Frontline. Aug. 25, 2010, in regards to Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans Police Dept.

http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=207&t=3, 2013, U.S. Energy Information Administration

4 Dina Cappiello, “Long Blackouts Pose Risk to U.S. Nuclear Reactors,” March 29, 2011, Associated Press

5 Victor Gilinsky, “Indian Point: The Next Fukushima?” Dec. 16, 2011, The New York Times

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  • RickE.

    I am so glad these points in this article were brought up.
    In the event of a severe disruption of the grid power, obviously it would most negatively impact the nuclear plants all over the USA.

    Sooner than later, the generators would be out of power, and the reactors would overheat.

    Even the most deliberately oblivious pro-nuke person would note and understand the ramifications involved in this catastrophic scenario.

    The thing to remember is that as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow morning, this class of an EMP, CME,etc. WILL occur sooner or later.

    What CAN happen WILL happen in this pinball machine we call our universe and solar system.

    There’s only 2 things we can do to prepare for this eventual scenario: 1), shut down the present reactors(not likely),
    2), or prepare as much as is possible for such a scenario, and there’s not a whole lot we can do when extreme levels of radiation are coursing through our lands and then bodies.

    It is amazing to me that these types of scenarios are completely ignored by those that plan, build, and approve the nuclear power plants!
    They are playing a game in which sooner or later, IT’S GAME OVER!

    • Ben F. Adams

      If anything, the failure of Fukushima has resulted in a fresh review of the emergency backup systems for N.Power Plants. N.Power can be utilized safely. The Navy has been doing it for decades! Fukushima was a very unusual event as it was a 1-2 punch of earthquake and tsunami/flooding. That is not to say that it couldnt ever happen again… but not every power plant is going to suffer the same fate just because of a massive power failure. As as you will see from my post below, EMP is not some magic event that will kill all electronics everywhere. In fact, the only infrastructure that is really at the biggest risk is the power grid, and that is not because of the control systems.. it is because of the millions of miles of power lines that act as a large antenna. Our biggest problem is how are we going to replace so many transformers

  • Cnsay

    Sounds like a bunch of BS.

    • RickE.

      What exactly sounds like BS? The fact that the reactors would overheat without power?

      Or the fact that sooner or later will we bit hit by some kind of EMP and/or CME? (caused by mankind or whatever).

  • Ben F. Adams

    Sorry to throw a wet blanket on the Gloom and Doom potential…

    Most of these scenarios (including prepper fiction novels like One Second After and Lights out), hinge on the mass disruption of transportation causing a cascade failure of our infrastructures.

    The truth is that in almost every EMP test, trucks and automobiles are minimally affected. (See http://www.survivalblog.com/2010/08/real_world_emp_effects_on_moto.html ). This is hardly surprising. Anyone who has worked on an automobile knows that the computer is usually encased in a grounded metal box that provides the same protections as a faraday cage.

    The bigger risk is largely to our power infrastructure. Even at that, the disruption will likely only last for several weeks – to several months.

    I live in the Ohio Valley, and several years ago we were hit by a freak wind event triggered by a dying hurricane. It caused widespread damage and power outages. So here is the sad part. I live on the edge of town in a rural part of Ohio. My power was only off for 5 hours. In our area, much of the power lines were underground. My brother lives in a large residential suburb. He was without power for three weeks! This was because the line that feeds his neighborhood was downed by a tree. The power company triages repairs to get as many people back online. Since reparing his line would only bring a handful of houses back online, they were last on the list to get repaired.
    My recommendation is that you examine your home, and prepare yourself to live without power for up to three months. IT CAN BE DONE. Prior to 1930, most homes didn’t have power anyway, and yet we somehow survived. Personally, I am building a stock of oil lamps and kerosene. We have gas heat and a gas range, but as a backup, I keep three propane cylinders on hand (one on the grill, and two spares). I have adapters to allow me to run a camp grill for cooking, and emergency heaters. I maintain a store of food staples that are unrefrigerated. I have multiple coolers that can be used to keep minimal refrigeration for some items.
    IMHO, I think the EMP scenario is oversold. Yes it will suck, but we will get thru it.

    • RickE.

      I sincerely hope that you are correct, Ben.
      Prior to 1930, there was no such thing as nuclear power or power plants that require cooling mechanisms that require electrical power.

      I live off of the grid, so for me it doesn’t make any difference as far as grid power goes. I couldn’t care less.

      When it comes to a nuclear plant going off of the grid, THAT is another story!

    • Nexus789

      You are right. Even a new ‘Carrington’ event would not crash the whole of the grid system. The Canadian and Finish Grid systems have mitigation against solar events which the US could also put in place.

  • JR

    Ummm…. jjust maybe the book of Revelation is spot-on….