What would happen if the technology failed

Blackout history: what happens if the power goes out?

Worst case scenarios
  • From Welt der Wunder magazine
  • Knowledge
  • 03.07.2020

After five days there are the first food shortages. After ten days there are riots across Europe. After 15 days, nuclear power plants spin out of control. And after 20 days? World of Wonders looks at the government's contingency plans.

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Hour 0: All of a sudden, public life collapses

Hurricane “Sandy” had not yet reached New York when the power went out in parts of Manhattan on October 29, 2012 shortly after 7:00 p.m. and paralyzed life. After all: the metropolis was able to prepare for it. But what would happen in Germany if suddenly the electricity was gone? The Office for Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag (TAB) has investigated exactly this case: Without traffic lights, traffic accidents happen immediately. Traffic jams hinder the police, fire brigade and ambulance. The fuel pumps fail at the filling stations. Thousands of people are trapped in broken elevators or subways and have to be evacuated. Fixed line telephones do not work, the mobile networks are overloaded. ATMs are out of order. Ventilation, heating and cooling fail, food starts to spoil ...

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... the population is still showing solidarity

Chaos breaks out in the prisons: the guards have difficulty controlling the inmates who are outside the cells. The water supply fails because the pressure in the pipes drops. In old people's and nursing homes, people who rely on ventilators, for example, die without emergency power. On farms without emergency power generators, cows die in agony because they cannot be milked without machines. Pig and poultry farms also become mass graves without heating and ventilation. Airports temporarily maintain their basic operations via emergency systems so that the machines can at least still land. There is confusion in the streets and squares: people hear messages from battery-operated radios that are broadcast every hour on the hour. The population is in solidarity - still. Because everyone is assuming a short-term disruption.

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What does an hour cost without electricity?

The Hamburg Institute of International Economics has calculated what a power failure costs in the first hour alone - and found large regional differences. Most heavily populated areas are particularly affected, in which ten million euros can easily come together. According to the study, a one-hour blackout at 12 noon across Germany costs a total of 600 million euros.

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Day 1: The minimum reserve of the hospitals is sufficient for 24 hours

Medicines that require cooling become unusable. Most hospitals run out of fuel for the emergency power generators after 48 hours and the patients have to be evacuated. But doctors and nurses can no longer get to work without functioning means of transport - the death sentence for many patients. More and more people are stranded at rest stops and at the roadside. The situation centers of the authorities and infrastructure companies can communicate via their own networks, and satellite telephones still work. For the population only radio remains.

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... panic is slowly spreading

Supermarkets are reopening and selling goods that were left in exchange for cash, and long lines form. The 118 euros that a German citizen has on average are just enough for the bare minimum. Warm meals are almost exclusively served over an open fire. The garbage disposal is stopped, fire brigades and the technical relief organization set up an emergency power supply, z. B. in fuel stores. The strategic reserve in Germany is sufficient for three months, but it can hardly be distributed. Panic slowly breaks out among the people ...

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Day 5: On average, a city dweller only has food for four days

Fire brigades or rescue services assume a power failure of a maximum of 72 hours and can then no longer coordinate operations. After five days at the latest, most citizens have nothing to eat and gather in emergency shelters. Gangs band together and pillage supermarkets. Soldiers and police officers are increasingly leaving their posts to take care of their family members. Due to the lack of disinfectants and water, diseases such as diarrhea circulate. The state can no longer maintain public order; the law of the stronger now prevails everywhere.

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Day 8: The situation is no longer manageable after just one week

The supermarket shelves are empty and fires can no longer be put out. Medical care collapses, with 60,000 to 80,000 dialysis patients alone dying. Violent acts and raids are part of everyday life. In the now inadequately guarded and overcrowded prisons, outbreaks and liberation campaigns are increasing. The military focuses on guarding the few still functioning facilities such as large hospitals and security-relevant infrastructure such as weapons or fuel depots. Employees of nuclear power plants no longer appear on duty, accidents have to be remedied by hand as a makeshift. The office for technology assessment comes to the conclusion: After eight days, at the latest after two weeks, the entire blackout is “no longer controllable”.

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And the nuclear power plants?

If the power fails in a nuclear power plant, diesel generators or gas turbines step in. Theoretically, several weeks to months can be bridged in this way. After that, however, the fuel rods can no longer be cooled, resulting in an uncontrolled core meltdown. As a result, the reactor can explode and radiate Europe over a large area. An EU stress test from 2012 shows that a catastrophe is possible even much earlier: 264 deficiencies were found in the 134 active reactor units examined, on average four of the “serious” level at each location. The Forsmark power plants in Sweden and Olkiluoto in Finland in particular give cause for concern: of five reactor blocks, four could not even safely bridge a one-hour power failure. In Forsmark, the technicians only have 35 minutes to restore the electricity that is absolutely necessary. What then really happens in an emergency remains open: the inspectors only visited 23 nuclear power sites.

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Day X: Can a digital bomb be smuggled into the power grid?

© iStock / RomoloTavani

From power plants to electricity meters: computers control work everywhere. They are all connected to the internet in some way. At critical junctions such as large substations, there are no operating personnel at all. Hackers can locate and attack vulnerabilities from anywhere on earth. The perpetrators are often state cyber warriors who infect the critical infrastructure of other nations with malware and mine it. Virus hunters keep discovering such digital bombs hidden in the control systems of the power plants. If there is a dispute, they can be secretly detonated - and the country falls into chaos.

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Worst case scenarios
  • From Welt der Wunder magazine
  • Knowledge
  • 03.07.2020

After five days there are the first food shortages. After ten days there are riots across Europe. After 15 days, nuclear power plants spin out of control. And after 20 days? World of Wonders looks at the government's contingency plans.