Senator fights electrical apocalypse

Sen. Ron Johnson plans to funnel $100 million toward quick hardening of the U.S. power grid. But with so much at stake, he contends, much more should be done.

Shutterstock image (by konstantinks): electic power transmission lines at sunset.

(konstantinks / Shutterstock)

For all the talk of the end of the world, few were listening.

In a July 22 Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sounded the alarm about the catastrophic, civilization-destroying threats that an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) pose to the U.S. power grid, going so far as to propose an immediate $100 million allocation to start fixing the vulnerabilities. (In an email sent after the hearing, a Johnson aide said the senator “is still in the process of thinking through mitigation allocation.”)

“The purpose of this hearing is basically to pull our heads out of the sand,” said Johnson. “This is a threat that is real, and we need to acknowledge.”

But for 80 minutes, Johnson was the only senator in the room asking questions. As is often the case, only a handful of other senators trickled in late to ask a few questions.

A severe, unavoidable threat

“One estimate is that within a year or so, two-thirds of the U.S. population would die,” James Woolsey, former CIA director and Foundation for Defense of Democracies chairman, said of an EMP-wrought power grid failure. “Another estimate said within a year or so, 90 percent of the U.S. population would die.”

The U.S.’ 16 critical infrastructure sectors are all united by the power grid, Woolsey and other witnesses noted. Bring it down, and the results are calamitous.

“We are talking about total devastation,” said Woolsey. “We are not just talking about a regular catastrophe.”

GMD and EMP refer to two different threats – the former from the sun (solar storms like the 1859 Carrington event) and the latter from nuclear blasts or other human invention – that could fry iPhones and, more dangerously, blow out transformers, crippling the grid.

Woolsey noted that while an EMP blast was once considered a nasty but minor side effect of nuclear war with the USSR, it’s now a major possibility that it would be an attack all its own.

North Korean or Iranian operatives, he said, could launch a SCUD missile from a freighter off the U.S coast, detonate a nuclear device at high altitude above the country and knock out a substantial portion of the grid.

“A single EMP could seriously degrade or shut down major parts of our power grid,” said Joseph McClelland, director of the Office of Energy Infrastructure Security at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The grid could be crippled for months or even years by such an attack.

‘No one wants to stick their neck out’

Congress charged a special commission with investigating the EMP threat in 2001, noted Johnson, but that commission’s 2008 recommendations have barely been heeded.

“[The Homeland Security Department] has taken some actions,” said the Government Accountability Office’s homeland security head Christopher P. Currie, while noting that DHS has apparently ignored or dragged its feet on implementing most recommendations, from identifying critical transformers to creating threat-sharing plans.

But industry isn’t sure “hardening” the grid is that useful.

“It is not practical to try to protect the entire electrical system [from EMPs],” said Bridgette Bourge, representing the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

She paraphrased the EMP commission as having stated it would be “inevitable” that the power grid would collapse after an EMP attack.

She noted that EMPs and GMDs are two very different events – and that the grid weathers GMDs all the time.

There was a solar storm just last week, she said, and “you saw no impact from that, you saw nothing from it.”

And besides, the energy sector relies on other critical sectors to keep running.

“Simply finding a way to harden the grid … when no one else is hardened doesn’t seem like the best use of our time,” Bourge said.

Woolsey, who has been hammering the EMP issue for years, interjected, “The EMP commission did not, I repeat, not conclude that it’s futile to protect the grid.”

Why hasn’t more been done?

“No one wants to stick their neck out,” said Woolsey. “We have a very serious problem: lack of willingness to admit … that this could be as serious as it is, given how horrible it is.”

A short-term fix

While industry’s Bourge said she supported the idea of stockpiling spare transformers, other witnesses pooh-poohed that idea.

Instead, the quick fix that most witnesses – and Johnson – seized upon was installing neutral current-blocking devices on critical transformers.

Physicist Richard Garwin testified  that roughly 700 critical 500,000-volt transformers would need to be protected around the country, with neutral current-blocking devices running $100,000 a pop.

“$70 million,” responded Johnson. “That doesn’t even show up as a rounding error in the federal budget.”

But they’re only one part of what needs to be a much broader defense, Johnson noted.

Johnson’s staff said he plans to introduce the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act on July 23. The measure will be a companion to a House bill of the same name, which would require DHS to include EMP threats in its national planning scenarios and conduct EMP risk mitigation research.

GAO’s Currie noted that while DHS holds the lion’s share of responsibility for protecting the grid, it needs to effectively delegate and work with other agencies.

Woolsey said President Barack Obama needs to bring this issue to the national fore “as soon as possible.”

Woolsey also noted that while the North American Electric Reliability Corporation has been doing some valuable work, it has hardly demonstrated the needed urgency for action on EMP and GMD threats.

After Great Northeast Blackout in 2003, which was sparked by a tree branch hitting a power line, it took NERC 10 years to develop a response to such an event, according to Woolsey.

“That’s essentially three World War IIs that it took NERC to figure out how to handle vegetation,” Woolsey said. “I don’t know how long it would take them to handle a more complex problem like, say, squirrels.”

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