Former CIA Director James Woolsey, Jr. called the vulnerability of America’s electric grid a “really troubling” problem that “keeps him up at night,” warning that a “nuclear detonation” would knock out every cell phone.
“We have a situation whereby we do have to pay attention to solar weather and we have to pay attention to something that can only be done by improving the resilience of our electric grid. And I think we don’t know whether it’s a matter of urgency or not with respect to the sun, because the sun has so far not been able to communicate to us as to when it plans to shoot forth coronal solar ejections, but if you look at the history we are kind of doomed,” he said at an Institute for World Politics event focused on energy security.
Woolsey told the audience that Russia, North Korea, Iran and China are all working hard on “nuclear generated electromagnetic pulse.” He explained that “the generation of electromagnetic pulse by low-yield nuclear detonations at low-earth orbit” is a major threat. He said the “assumption” has always been a launch would occur over the North Pole because that’s the shortest distance from the location of potential enemies. Therefore, virtually all of America’s warning systems are focused north.
“You can cause a huge disruption or even destruction of a country’s electricity grid by detonating even a relatively primitive, older, low-yield nuclear weapon in orbit if you are above the U.S. and relatively high, say hundreds of kilometers, then you may be able to generate the portion of the electromagnetic pulses that will take out our cell phones, let’s say, throughout a huge area,” he said. “If you are much lower, 30 or 40 kilometers, you may only take out the cell phones of two-thirds of the country or half of the country rather than all of it.”
Woolsey, who served in the Clinton administration, cautioned that the threat will intensify the longer politicians wait to address the security of the electric grid.
“You can have a relatively long period of time where not just the Russians and the Chinese but the Iranians and the North Koreans are capable of launching a missile — let’s say they launch it to the south instead of north so nothing picks it up, no radars, no nothing, it comes around the South Pole, goes into polar orbit and just kind of keeps going, it’s got a nuclear weapon in it,” he said. “We may be living with threats like that for some time.”
According to Woolsey, the federal government officials and experts in the electrical business do not want the public to believe the grid is vulnerable so they do not focus on the issue.
“They don’t want to deal with it. They don’t want people to think that the grid is vulnerable. They don’t know exactly what to do about it. It is a mess,” he said. “There’s no leadership at all at the federal level.”
Woolsey said big chunks of the electric grid would go down if an attack occurred. He suggested that Congress and the White House work together to enact $2 billion worth of “crucial” changes to the grid.
“That is pennies to the point of view of the vulnerability of society because what we are talking about is a risk that if the grid goes down you are not living anymore in, let’s say, the 1980s post-web. You are living in the 1880s pre-electricity and very few of us have enough plough horses and seeds to lead a reasonable existence in 19th century agriculture,” he said.