WASHINGTON – A warning bell is being sounded urging the federal government to take the steps necessary to prepare for an electromagnetic pulse that could cause massive blackouts and damage the nation’s electric grid.
Experts maintain an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) resulting from a high-altitude detonation of a nuclear weapon high above the jet stream — perhaps by a rogue state — or a geomagnetic “super storm” caused by the sun could conceivably lead to a blackout lasting months or even years. A 2008 report by the congressional Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse found that up to nine out of 10 Americans could die from a long-term blackout as a result of starvation and societal collapse.
The world almost found out what life would be like in the wake of a super storm in 2012, according to NASA, which places the possibility of such an event at 12 percent per decade, meaning that a catastrophe could occur within the lifetime of those currently populating the planet.
But the House Subcommittee on Interior National Security learned that little is being done to prepare for an EMP on the national level, leaving much of the work to the states.
James H. Baker, a professor emeritus at George Mason University who served as the principal staff member on the EMP commission, informed the subcommittee that “we have the engineering know-how and tools to protect ourselves. What is lacking is resolve.”
“EMP and GMD (geomagnetic disturbances) are particularly challenging in that they interfere with electrical power and electronic data, control, transmission and communication systems organic to nearly all critical infrastructures,” Baker told the panel. “The affected geography may be continental in scale.”
EMP and GMD events represent “a class of high-consequence disasters that is unique in its coverage, ubiquity and simultaneous system debilitation,” he said. They require particular attention with regard to preparedness and recovery since assistance from non-affected regions of the nation could be scarce or nonexistent.
Neither President Obama nor Congress have moved to implement policies regarding EMP. The House in 2008 passed the Grid Act and the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act but neither made it through the Senate.
Peter Vincent Pry, executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, a congressional advisory board working to protect the U.S. from EMP and other threats, said that in addition to destroying the grid, an event could “collapse all the other critical infrastructures — communications, transportation, banking and finance, food and water — necessary to sustain modern society and the lives of 310 million Americans.”
States should harden their electric grids against nuclear EMP attack because “there is a clear and present danger, because protecting against nuclear EMP will mitigate all lesser threats and because both the federal government in Washington and the electric power industry have failed to protect the people from the existential peril that is an EMP catastrophe,” he said.
There are two types of EMP events, according to Baker. In the first, gamma rays resulting from a nuclear blast interact with stratospheric air molecules. That couples with electrical and electronic systems in general, regardless of the length of their penetrating cables and antenna lines. Exposed systems may be upset or permanently damaged under that scenario.
In the other event, the earth’s magnetic field lines are distorted as a result of the expanding nuclear fireball and the rise of heated and ionized layers of the ionosphere. The change of the magnetic field at the earth’s surface induces currents of hundreds to thousands of amperes in long conducting lines that damage components of the electric power grid itself as well as powered systems. Long-line communication systems are also affected.
In the case of solar storms, charged particles from the sun interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Electrojets from these storms can generate overvoltages in long-line systems over large regions of the earth’s surface, affecting electric power and communication transmission networks.
Baker told the subcommittee that “we must come to grips, as a nation, with the EMP/GMD preparedness challenges.”
“The consequences of these threats are preventable,” he said. “The good news is that the engineering tools are available to protect a meaningful set of high-priority infrastructures.”
The nation should undertake several initiatives, Baker said. A national executive agency should be created within either the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Defense with the first order of business being the development of a national EMP/GMD protection plan and a set of national planning scenarios.
Baker said the nation also needs to create a national program to protect the electric power grid, including essential supporting infrastructures used for fuel supply and communication.
And Congress should establish an independent commission solely focused on electric grid reliability with the authority to issue and enforce regulations similar to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Baker told the panel that the lack of progress in protecting critical infrastructure from EMP and GMD centers on the fact that responsibility is distributed.
“EMP protection has become a finger-pointing, ring-around-the-rosey, duck-and-cover game,” he said. “Our bureaucracy has enabled gaps for addressing the difficult problems of EMP and GMD, resulting in no substantive action to protect the nation.”
The U.S. faces the “classic Washington problem of issues that span departments or fall between departments, which we’re all very familiar with, but then we add to that the involvement of the private sector, without central leadership, we’re foundering.”
In response to the situation, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) has introduced the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, which, among other things requires the Department of Homeland Security to include EMP threats in its national planning scenarios and conduct a campaign to proactively educate owners and operators of critical infrastructure, emergency planners, and emergency responders at all levels of government of EMP threats.
That bill is currently before the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies.