That is the online title of an op-ed by Ted Koppel appearing in the Washington Post (the hardcopy headline reads "Before the cyber-blackout"). Koppel, best known for hosting the ABC news program “Nightline” from 1980 to 2005, is the author of the new book, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.
The op-ed raises the specter of a power outage lasting not hours, or days, but weeks, or months, due to a coordinated cyber-attack on the vulnerable U.S. electricity grid.
But the op-ed does not address what this would mean at the 100 still operating atomic reactors across the country, and even at the numerous atomic reactors permanently shutdown. Even if operating atomic reactors were able to power down and shutdown safely during a power outage, their thermally hot cores would still have to be cooled for several days before cold shutdown was reached.
After all, the three operating reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan did successfully SCRAM the moment the 9.0 earthquake struck on 3/11/11. It was the inability to cool the cores in the following days, due to the lost of the electric grid and the backup emergency diesel generators (EDGs) that led to the triple-meltdown.
This is the cautionary tale for a massive cyber-attack on the U.S. electric grid, vis a vis nuclear power plants. The hot cores would need to be cooled for at least several days, if not longer, before cold shutdown was achieved. But so too would high-level radioactive waste storage pools, even at atomic reactors that have been long permanently shutdown.
For hot reactor cores, this means EDGs would have to take the place of the electric grid, as the source of power to run the safety and cooling systems, for days or longer. But only so much diesel fuel is required to be stored on-site at reactors, as little as days' worth. The mass societal disruption caused by a widespread power outage would make diesel fuel re-supply to atomic reactors difficult to impossible.
This could make harrowing decisions necessary. For example, during the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, diesel fuel supplies for EDGs at area hospitals had to be re-directed to the Turkey Point nuclear power plant, to keep EDGs running there. Thus, electricity at hospitals, in the aftermath of a major hurricane, was deemed secondary, as the priority had to be preventing a meltdown at an atomic reactor.
In the case of high-level radioactive waste storage pools, at both still operating reactors, as well as long permanently shutdown ones, the emergency would be initially complicated by the inexplicable fact that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does not require pools to be connected to EDGs in the first place. The power to run the safety and cooling systems on pools is entirely reliant on the electric grid. Thus, if the grid is lost, the pools will be entirely without electricity -- unless and until, in an ad hoc fashion, EDGs can quickly be connected to the pools.
Cooling thermally hot reactor cores invovles a much shorter fuse than cooling pools. The former allows only hours without cooling, before meltdown begins. But even the longer fuse with pools -- days or even weeks before pool water boils off, all the way down to the tops of the irradiated fuel assemblies stored in the bottom of the pool, under tens of feet of water, could be implicated. After all, Koppel warns that the cyber-attack on the electric grid could result in not hours or days of power outage, but weeks or months.
Again, at Fukushima Daiichi, it took 10 days just to restore the lights in a single control room. It took much longer to re-establish stable cooling water supplies to the melted down reactor units, as well as to the high-level radioactive waste storage pools. And that involved an albeit massive one-two punch of natural disasters, earthquake and tsunami, not an intentional attack.
An ironic image accompanied Koppel's op-ed,