Exploding A Nuclear Bomb In The Sky Creates An Interesting Phenomenon
In 1962, during the depths of the Cold War, the U.S. military exploded a nuclear weapon high above an atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Dubbed Operation Starfish, this exercise was part of a larger project to evaluate the impacts of nuclear explosions in space. The missile, launched from Johnson Island, 900 miles from Hawaii, was armed with a 1.4 megaton warhead, programmed to explode at 240 miles above the earth. It detonated as expected. What was not entirely expected was the magnitude of the resulting electromagnetic pulse (EMP).
The EMP was powerful enough to affect the electric grid in Hawaii, blowing out streetlights, and resulting in telephone outages and radio blackouts.
Dr. William Graham was active in the follow-up to the project, working out of the Air Force weapons lab in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After the blast, it was his job to understand the data collected, find out just what had happened in Hawaii, and what the defense implications were of this phenomenon. In a recent interview, Graham commented,
The effects were bizarre and almost entirely unanticipated. One effect was an electromagnetic pulse, but nobody knew it was going to be anywhere nearly as large it proved to be. They had all this data and they didn’t understand very much of it, including the EMPs that had been observed and the effects produced…all kinds of electrical disturbances were seen over 1000 kilometers away in Oahu. The Air Force brought in a bunch of us…and asked us to explain it. With the leadership of scientists from Los Alamos, we figured it out. It was a fairly subtle piece of physics. At that time we were worried it could be used as a precursor attack on the U.S. and suppress our retaliatory capability. Since the effect wasn’t really understood before 1962, our military systems hadn’t protected against it up to that point.
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Graham then went on to become one of the nation’s leading experts on the topic, helping advise on both defensive and offensive capabilities.
We needed to protect our ballistic missiles, B1 bombers, and communications systems for command and control. A decade later I laid out the design of how you made an even stronger enhanced EMP weapon. That was almost 50 years ago.
In the 1980s, during the Reagan Administration, Dr. Graham continued to lend his expertise and became a member of the President’s Arms Control Experts Group and Science Advisor to the President.
More recently, he has shifted his focus to protecting against what he now sees as the potentially greatest existential threat to the United States: an EMP attack against our civilian infrastructure – particularly the electric power grid. He is concerned that in the last half-century since we first became aware of this issue, our increasing reliance on electronics, and hence our vulnerability, has increased tremendously.
To that end, Graham has served as Chair to both the 2001-4 and 2006-8 Commissions to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack and was a member of the Department of Defense’s Science Board and the National Academies Board on Army Science and Technology.
The Potential Consequences Are Almost Unimaginable
Graham knows what he is talking about, and his comments are not to be taken lightly.
Since then, there has been an enormous increase in our dependency on electronics, computers, and microelectronics. An attack may never happen. But the more vulnerable the U.S. is to such an attack, the more likely it is to be used against us. In the former days, we worried about Russia. Now we have to be concerned about North Korea and Iran. These could be launched from a not-so-elaborate container ship. The rocket doesn’t have to be accurate. It just has to go up. It’s well within the capability of even an earlier Scud missile, of which thousands have been produced – it just has to have a nuclear weapon on top.
Graham expressed concern that Iran also has this offensive capability within their arsenal, and perhaps within their current military doctrine as well.
We have data indicating that the Iranians have launched their versions of Scuds off of the Caspian Sea – not from land, but from the sea – and launched them over land. And we’ve also seen them launch missiles that have gone up and apparently exploded near their highest altitude – when you put those two ideas together – that is an EMP attack.
Why is this so important? Because a single missile with a warhead that actually doesn’t have to be all that large has the potential to take out the U.S. power grid, destroy our electronics networks, and create an existential crisis like nothing the world has ever witnessed.
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Here’s an excerpted summary from the 2008 Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack that would make great science fiction. Unfortunately, it’s not:
The electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated by a high altitude nuclear explosion is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences…A single EMP attack may seriously degrade or shut down a large part of the electric power grid in the geographic area of EMP exposure effective instantaneously. There is also the possibility of the functional collapse of grids beyond the exposed one, as electrical effects propagate from one region to another…Should significant parts of the electric power infrastructure be lost for any substantial period of time, the Commission believes that the consequences are likely to be catastrophic, and many people may ultimately die for lack of the basic elements necessary to sustain life in dense urban and suburban communities.
The summary continues:
In fact, the Commission is deeply concerned that such impacts are likely in the event of an EMP attack unless practical steps are taken to provide protection for critical elements of the electric system and for rapid restoration of electric power, particularly to essential services.
It goes on to note that we have become so efficient, technology-dependent, and highly leveraged that utilities would lack sufficient trained service personnel to address a disaster on this scale.
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The Effects and Components of Electromagnetic Pulses
The International Electrotechnical Commission defines three components associated with a nuclear electromagnetic pulse: E1, E2, and E3. The E1 pulse is brief, intense, and very quick (traveling at over 90% of the speed of light), and can take out computers and telecommunications equipment owing to its ability to exceed voltage limitations. The E2 element is intermediate in duration, lasting from a microsecond to a second after the initiation of the EMP, and is similar in its effects to lightning. As such, the grid is generally shielded against E2. By contrast, the E3 pulse is much slower, a result of the nuclear explosion affecting the earth’s magnetic field, and is very similar to the effects of an intense solar storm. The E3 effect of a nuclear blast or severe solar storm would be to create massive currents on power lines, which could then destroy electrical transformers and potentially impact power plants as well.
One curious facet of an EMP event is that we wouldn’t even feel it pass through our bodies. The EMP would pass unnoticed through us, even as it fried the iPhones and Galaxies in our pockets, knocked out our telecommunications system, rendered our cars and computers without the ability to function, and took out our power grid.
We would have little idea of the dread potentially awaiting us because there would be no communications. No mobility. Nothing that our highly evolved, sophisticated, and electronic society relies on. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we know how to protect against this type of event. The military had been working on hardening its capabilities since the Cold War in the 1960s (as have the Russians, Chinese, and other nations).
The bad news (again) is that the civilian infrastructure is about as soft as it gets, there is nobody in charge of coordinating a hardening of this infrastructure, and government response to date has been tepid or watered down to the point that it is relatively meaningless.
In fact, no less than two Congressional Commissions (2004 and 2008), a National Academy of Sciences report and other U.S. Government-sponsored studies have raised heightened concerns about this issue. All found that the EMP threat poses a significant and existential threat to the United States. Ultimately, such a threat extends to the rest of the world; a failure of the U.S. banking, economic, and national security systems would quickly have enormous ramifications across the rest of the planet.
And yet, legislation to address the issue never makes it out of committee, regulators come up with weak standards, and nothing really happens. It is only after a significant harmful event has occurred that we, as a society, raise questions as to why didn’t we do more to guard against the potential effects. It seems it has always been that way.
After 9/11, the Commission pointed out the weaknesses and failures that helped allow that event to take place, and pointed to ‘a failure of imagination.’ After Hurricane Sandy, it seems the nation (the East Coast, anyway) woke up to the potential damage a major storm could do, and set about working to harden the coastline and our infrastructure. And yet, that hurricane had to hit New York before the city seriously addressed the threat – we could not extrapolate from Katrina and connect the dots. It was as if Hurricane Katrina had never occurred. Just because a storm hit New Orleans and caused tremendous damage, why should New York worry?
Unfortunately, that failure of imagination appears to be front and center with respect to protection against EMP – whether created by the sun or human antagonists.
Surprisingly, there is only a relatively small group of people who are highly focused on this issue. Like Dr. Graham, they also happen to be the ones who were most involved in developing our own EMP weaponry capabilities or countermeasures during the Cold War, so they know better than most how devastating these weapons can be. And they are extremely frustrated with the utter lack of meaningful action in Washington to address this issue.
The nature of this threat was brought to my attention by Dr. Peter Pry, who has written extensively on the topic, most recently publishing the book ELECTRIC ARMAGEDDON: CIVIL-MILITARY PREPAREDNESS FOR AN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE CATASTROPHE as head of the Task Force on National And Homeland Security. A former CIA Intelligence Officer, Dr. Pry is an expert in the space, has served on numerous congressional advisory groups concerning national security issues. He also connected me with some of the other major thinkers who have been advocating for a more proactive U.S response.
Over the past few weeks, I have interviewed Graham, Pry, and a number of other experts, to better understand the issue as well, as the lack of any meaningful or concerted response – from either the national government, the electric industry, and its regulators.
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When Regulators Rely On Adam Smith, Don’t Be Surprised If The Dingo Comes Over To Babysit
Pry comments that the main entity responsible for electric reliability, the North American Electric AEP -0.78% Reliability Corporation, and its member utilities, don’t want to spend the money. NERC “lowballs the threat from natural EMP from the sun. They claim they can handle it, but that’s untrue.”
They don’t even focus on the obvious physical threat to substations.
If you drive to where the high-voltage AC substations are, you can see how unprotected they are. Some friends of mine in California deliberately hung around a substation for hours just to see if anybody would ask them what they were doing there and nobody showed up.
Meanwhile, there is nobody specifically in charge of protecting the nation’s electric grid from a national security perspective. The Department of Defense has no jurisdiction for protecting the domestic civilian infrastructure, despite its national security implications. NERC is relatively toothless, made up of its member utilities – whose chief responsibilities are to their shareholders and ratepayers, not to safeguard national security. And the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) lacks any real mandate.
We saw just how weak this collaboration was with the recommendations coming out last month from the NERC relating to the protection of the power grid against both physical attacks and solar storms. In both cases, the standards approved by NERC are far below what is necessary and don’t even include power plants. There is simply no holistic view being applied, and no serious response to the potential severity of the threat.
It’s not like nobody is trying. In 2011, Representative Trent Franks (a Republican from Arizona) attempted to address this situation, sponsoring H.R. 668, the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage (SHIELD) Act. This legislation would have directed the FERC to enable emergency measures to protect the power grid via directive of the President. Importantly, it also laid out the cost recovery methodologies (the private sector needs to get paid for the measures it implements). The Act also would have ordered the FERC to develop and submit reliability standards for the electric grid with respect to geomagnetic storms or EMPs. Finally, it would have directed the DoE to create a program to develop expertise in safeguarding the bulk power system and to share this expertise with the owners, operators, and users. In June of last year, this was referred to the Subcommittee on Energy and Power.
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Pry commented that NERC has lobbied against the bill, claiming that it represents over-regulation. He notes that in his view, the Edison Electric Institute is no better, characterizing this effort as ‘Obamacare for the electric grid’ and stating that the industry should be left to address this issue. This tepid approach leaves him rather mystified.
You never want to privatize that (national security) function. The invisible hand of Adam Smith does not do national security well. Industry and the private sector is wired to provide goods and services efficiently – they will always be against spending that extra dime to protect against a black swan event.
Ambassador Hank Cooper served with Graham at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in the 1960s and later oversaw the Department of Defense programs to harden the Air Force strategic systems, including the command, control, and communications systems to assure they could operate through, and the President could use them after, a Soviet nuclear EMP attack. He was President Reagan’s Chief Negotiator at the Defense and Space Talks with Soviets and Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) during George H.W. Bush era—where he worked to assure our ballistic missile defense systems were hardened to EMP effects. He reiterates that:
The EMP problem is surely an existential threat to our society. It can be done by folks who wish us ill and are willing to commit suicide to pull it off. It would make 9/11 look like a piker and 100’s of millions of Americans could die.
Cooper believes that one reason for inaction to date has been because of key information on the EMP threat and how to counter it was highly classified during the Cold War—indeed until the EMP Commission was able to get it made public in 2008. So the public and even many government officials have been unaware of the issues—and most with government clearances haven’t yet proactively addressed the broader concerns about the viability of our civil critical infrastructure after an EMP attack.
They certainly have had little effect on an electric industry that is unwilling to submit itself to additional oversight. In this, Cooper closely echoes Pry.
There are some things government should be regulating, and the electric power grid is one of them. We should have some kind of regulatory body to deal with the electric power infrastructure that has grown up helter-skelter over many decades.
Cooper notes that Congress has provided a dysfunctional regulatory arrangement that mirrors what it would be like if you could only buy medicine from completely unregulated pharmaceutical companies selling their wares—like buying “miracle drugs” from a traveling salesman in the “Old West.” There is a well-defined purpose for the Federal Drug Administration—no matter what its performance may be. He suggests we need an analogous authority with teeth to assure a viable electric power grid.
Connecting the dots requires only limited imagination, so it clearly stands to reason that the U.S. government should be aware of – and addressing the problem – with a high degree of urgency. Yet it seems as if nothing could be further from the truth. From the government perspective, it is as if an event such as 9/11 never happened, or never could happen to the nation’s power grid. The FERC has directed the NERC to develop plans against an electromagnetic storm, and even in this area, the result has been astonishingly lackluster. As Graham comments,
The problem is the way it is set up is the FERC has to ask NERC to draft regulations, standards, and procedures along the lines and areas that the Commission specifies. But the industry controls NERC. It’s as if you were in the pharmaceutical industry and the industry decided what pharmaceuticals to approve… What this arrangement does is it allows NERC – which is just another vehicle of the electric power industry – to retain the rewards of having a regulated utility while at the same time handing the risk off to the taxpayer…If you can privatize the rewards and socialize the risks, you can’t get a better deal than that. If pharmacies did that for drugs, people wouldn’t stand for it, but this is more complex so people don’t understand it.
Remember that there was Pearl Harbor, and the invasion by North Korea, and 9/11—all arguably because we were unprepared. You can be right most at the time, but there are times that when you are wrong the results can be catastrophic. The FERC-NERC arrangement is whistling past the graveyard, working on the assumption that nothing ever happens for the first time. But the grid is fragile enough. We already had the 1965 and 2003 blackouts. The grid is not enormously robust, to begin with, and all that’s absent is some dedicated adversary with the desire and competence to take it down.
In June of 2013, Graham, Cooper, and other experts concerned with the EMP threat wrote a highly detailed letter outlining the EMP threat and ways to protect against it. This letter – from the Foundation For Resilient Societies – was addressed to the White House as well as to the Secretaries of Defense, State, Energy, and Homeland Security, as well as a host of other federal agencies. A year later, the Foundation has yet to receive a response.
Pining For The Days Of Cold War Mutual Assured Destruction: The Rogue Threat Is Real
Dr. Pry has been focused on the EMP issue for decades. At the CIA, his specific task was to evaluate the Russian nuclear strategy. At that time, the U.S. intelligence community was keenly aware that an EMP attack could existentially threaten the U.S.
Nuclear EMP played a major role in their strategy against us. The goal was to paralyze our military systems, as well as civilian critical infrastructure. The Russians were also hoping it would interfere with emergency action messages to all forces, including ballistic nuke submarines. It was my specialty…to educate policymakers and military leaders about EMP and what the bad guys were planning to do with it.
The Russians thought about EMP both offensively and defensively. One of the Soviet Union’s greatest fears was that we had an EMP attack on our military doctrine, and they prepared for it. Dr. Pry noted that this preparation and mindset almost proved our undoing, because the Russians took this threat very seriously, even after the Cold War was over.
25 January 1995 we came close to nuclear war. A Norwegian meteorological rocket was launched (to study the Aurora Borealis) and the Russians thought it was an incoming missile.
The Russian military went on high alert and actually brought the nuclear briefcase to then-President Boris Yeltsin, while their intercontinental ballistic missiles were placed on high alert to prepare for a nuclear strike.
Why were they worried about one missile? They thought it was an EMP missile, to take out the general staff and paralyze the forces to enable a surprise attack. They would expect a single missile from a close location. This was a week after they lost the battle of Grozny. They thought, if the roles were reversed and the U.S. military had suffered a defeat in the Cold War, they would complete the process, and at some point deliver a coup de grace against the United States. They wouldn’t tolerate the existence of the U.S., and they were waiting to see if the U.S. would launch a surprise nuclear attack to finish off Russia and finalize its Cold War victory.
Today, that danger from Russia still exists, but it is not what keeps Pry, Graham, or the EMP threat experts up at night. Today, the danger is less likely to emanate from an organized state within the community of nations, and more likely to come from a marginalized nation or a stateless entity – somebody who has less to lose, and against whom it would be harder to strike back.
In the previous decade, the U.S. government recognized that the need to better understand this danger, and commissioned a study in 2001 followed by a second review four years later. In 2004, only the executive summary was released. In 2008, the contents of the updated report on critical national infrastructures were released as a result of a deliberate decision to inform the public and declassify enough to raise awareness that there was a threat to the unhardened infrastructure.
Even though the Department of Defense and the intelligence community has known about and dealt with the EMP threat for 50 years, it wasn’t until about 2008 that many people knew about it.
Concerns related to nuclear EMPs have heightened in recent years as a result of the continued activities of states such as Iran and North Korea, as well as various non-state actors such as Al Qaeda. Pry indicates that North Korea sits at the top of the list of worries.
We were told by the Russians that their technology leaked to North Korea. We were visited in 2004 by a delegation of Russian generals—two of their top EMP experts. That was the first time I had ever heard them admit leakage of technology to third world bad guys. They told us proactively ‘we have bad news. We developed this super-EMP weapon, and during the post-Cold War brain drain, some of our scientists went to North Korea’…They thought within a few years, North Korea could develop a super-EMP weapon. The South Korean military intelligence came up with same conclusion – that Russian scientists were in North Korea developing their weapons
Any casual observer of North Korea will note that the country routinely tests missiles (as they did this month) – often during periods of heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula. The payload capabilities of the rockets they launch are not very large. But they don’t have to be to launch an EMP. Pry notes that the Western press has characterized North Korea’s nuclear tests as relative failures,
At only one-to-three kilotons. But that is exactly what a super-EMP would look like – low yield but designed to maximize the production of gamma rays which, if detonated above the earth’s atmosphere, interact with the geomagnetic field to produce the EMP effect.
Ambassador Cooper observes that the enemy has shifted, and we have not changed our doctrine in response.
We assumed that if the Soviets ever attacked us, they would lead to a high altitude attack on the U.S. to destroy our ability to communicate with our retaliatory forces. We spent a lot of money to harden our strategic military infrastructure, including redundancy. And so I am absolutely certain that the effects are real, and that we know how to harden against them. During the Cold War, we did little or nothing to harden the commercial infrastructure essential to our survival. We bet everything on the idea of mutually assured destruction (the doctrine of deterrence that posited that any attack on the U.S. would result in a powerful response and ultimate annihilation of the attacking party). We established a tripwire in Europe so the Soviets wouldn’t attack them or us in the first place.
Mutual Assured Destruction works fine if both parties understand and play by the same rules. And if neither party is willing to commit suicide.
But Iran is not Russia. And what it takes to deter the Russians might not deter the Ayatollah. We face an existential threat from somebody who has openly stated the Iranian regime wants to destroy us—the “Great Satan” as they say. All they need is a nuclear weapon to go on one of their existing ballistic missiles used to launch satellites.
It should be noted that Iran launched last year satellites that could carry a lightweight “Super-EMP” weapon that they may have learned how to build from the Russians via their join programs with North Korea. And these satellites were launched to the south of Iran—they approached the United States from the south. Our missile defense systems are deployed to counter missiles approaching us from the ‘north.’ We are vulnerable to EMP attacks from the south.
Don’t Forget About The Sun
And then there is the possibility of a massive geomagnetic storm, far greater than the Hydro-Quebec solar storm of 1989, which was sufficient to cause the HQ grid to collapse within 92 seconds, took out a transformer at a nuclear plant in New Jersey.
A geomagnetic storm occurs when a solar wind interacts with the planet’s magnetosphere and transfers energy to that magnetosphere. This results in the increased electric current, which can be picked up by power lines essentially acting as antennae.
The famous 1859 Carrington event reportedly created an aurora borealis bright enough so that people in the northeast could read a newspaper at night. The EMP impact was sufficient to cause telegraph machines to catch on fire and took out the newly laid transatlantic cable. In today’s world, it could have a significantly more devastating effect. The good news here is that with a solar event taking place 96 million miles away, we would have approximately 20 hours of lead time, and could potentially take the power grid offline to protect transformers and other infrastructure until an event passed by. That said, a proactive continental blackout could be quite damaging.
However, no one knows if a voluntary blackout of the grid would, in fact, save it from an EMP catastrophe. For certain, we lack the command and control arrangements or a plan in place to execute a coordinated nationwide shutdown of the grid by its 3,000 utilities, nor have we ever practiced such a contingency, or practiced turning the nation back “on”–performing what would technically be called a nationwide “black start.”
This threat is more than theoretical. Just two years ago, a solar superstorm erupted that was likely similar to or greater in magnitude than the Carrington event. Fortunately, the earth was not in the line of fire, but it was close. Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado was quoted as saying that had the event occurred a week earlier, the earth would have been hit. Had that occurred “we would still be picking up the pieces.”
Given that high level of uncertainty, what would it take to harden the grid against either a solar or military EMP event? That depends on what and who you are trying to protect against and what kind of post-event capabilities one is trying to achieve.
Pry notes that,
A super nuke would inject 200,000 volts into the system in a nanosecond. But this can be protected against with a scaled-up surge arrestor. They have to be faster than lightning surge arrestors – those are too slow. The E1 pulse goes right through before it can be shut down. You need a faster and more robust surge arrestor that would deal with E1 and E3 effects.
While the Transmission Lines are Vulnerable, So Are Power Plants
One individual who has done a good deal of work in evaluating the preventative technologies and associated costs – with many publications to his name – is John Kappenman. Kappenman is a consultant to the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the DoD concerning the risks and costs of solar storms to the electric grid. He has modeled the costs to protect against potential massive solar storms, as well as having invented some of the defensive technology. Kappenman observes that you have to apply systems thinking to a highly interconnected power grid. And while all of the attention (such as it is) has been paid to the security of the power lines – which would indeed act to magnify the strength of the EMP, power plants are extremely vulnerable and cannot be ignored.
You have to look at the grid holistically and solve the problem holistically. I think we probably need to do somewhere like 1700 – 2000 large transformers to protect against the EMP magnetic storms…we are talking about something in the neighborhood of around a billion dollars or so. Even at that big a number, it still equates less to a dollar per year per power bill. Compare that to the existing investment in the power grid infrastructure, which is more than a trillion dollars, perhaps several trillion.
That cost is for an E3 solar disturbance or from an EMP attack as well. E3 is a physical process. With an E1, after the blast occurs, there is a big atmospheric heave that creates a geomagnetic field disturbance…One of the things I am concerned about is all of the power plants that are out there. They will all experience that E1 transient to some degree. A large base-load plant such as coal or nukes – all of these may have a very difficult time remaining intact.
Kappenman comments that this is a result of the tremendous amount of energy these plants process each day. Take a coal-fired plant, for instance.
These boilers take 20,000 tons of coal per day, and pulverize it to a consistency of talcum powder to inject into the furnace and boiler systems…They have an enormous amount of energy input into the conversion process. It’s equivalent to exploding one ton of TNT per second…When you get the E1 blast, it could cripple virtually all of the electronic systems that are driving the entire power plant. It would only take seconds of energy mismatch between energy input, and you would have a very volatile situation that could explode the plant and not only hurt people but make it unavailable for restoration anytime soon.
He notes that thousands of plants would experience the same thing at the same time, and the nukes would have radioactive energy as well.
The industry has badly miscalculated the risks that are posed by these disturbance or attack scenarios. That’s a serious problem…It is perhaps the largest natural disaster scenario that could occur in modern day society. It’s also the largest terror attack scenario that the country could possibly be exposed to as well.
Kappenman looks at this problem as one that has to be responded to immediately in a post-event scenario. The question – whether in a natural or man-made catastrophe – is what functional pieces are left, and how quickly you can stitch them back together to some functional level.
I care about the availability to bring the system back rapidly in a few days at most – if we can’t do that, we see the potential for lots of innocent lives being lost, perhaps within the matter of just a few weeks, more than all of the wars this country has fought in its history.
The problem is that even if the transformers are protected, there is still an enormous risk to thermal power plants. Many of those would likely be out of commission for some time, including the nuclear and coal plants.
Now you are down to looking at natural gas, oil fired, and hydroelectric sources that may have a better chance of surviving this scenario. But with natural gas, it doesn’t have any on-site stored fuel…Pipelines have control systems that are going to be challenged by the same E1 threat and may not survive it. The key would be to re-start black start generators with lower voltage systems. I would say concentrate on restoring the paths from those black start generators to pick up loads in regions around them.
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How Would One Protect The Nation’s Power Grid?
So what would it take, then, to provide a meaningful level of protection to the system? Kappenman indicates that this depends significantly on how one approaches the issue and what is the target to be hardened. But to protect the electronics aspect, the approaches are simple and relatively low cost. The challenge has to do with the fact that our electronics are ubiquitous, making a complete retrofit effort time-consuming and costly. The best way to approach it would be piecemeal, focusing on the critical areas first and replacing other items as they age and require updating.
If we talk about vulnerable electronic systems, most of this has to do with cords and leads into electronic boxes where electronics are housed. It’s easy and inexpensive to harden this. But people haven’t thought through the fact that all of these leads connected into that smart box act like antennas that wait to be pulsed and kill that electronic brain. People need to think through how they are doing this and put in simple filtering devices to prevent the damage. There are companies out there that make nice little devices that plugin. Those sort of things is real and inexpensive – a few dollars per device. Using fiber optic cables that do not contain electrical conductors (instead of copper wires) can also help, since they will not act like an antenna. Those systems are also at similar price points.
The expense comes from the fact that we have put a lot of this stuff in without thinking about these things, and the expense is in going in and retrofitting. The cost – if we had thought about it in the first place – would have been inconsequential. These are all technologies that exist, are well known, and are not expensive in their own right. But we now have an infrastructure out there that has never been thought through properly for this threat. It’s the same with the solar storm threat. All these systems sit there and act like a big antenna when a storm or an EMP attack occurs.
With the bigger hardware, such as transformers, it is not necessary to harden every one of them. The key is to apply systems thinking, look at the entire grid as a whole, and determine where you need redundancy and what critical assets must be protected. Kappenman comments,
With transformers, you have redundant schemes. You only need to harden one. And you don’t need to harden all of SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition systems that provide remote monitoring and control) as such. If we can begin to control some of this through manual controls to at least get the lights back on, that would be adequate to ensure at least getting the lights back on as a limited lifeline capability. You don’t need a SCADA system to actually do that – we operated for decades that way in the grid before SCADA came along. We also need a rudimentary voice communication system that has been thought out and hardened as well. As the SCADA and controls systems get replaced in routine maintenance, you could bring in new and hardened inexpensive components for the next generation.
Something Has to Change
Yes, we could do all that. But we probably won’t. We don’t have the leadership in Washington. We have a serious mismatch between a for-profit industry and a national security issue. And we don’t have the political will to address this issue with the resources and gravity it deserves. We really honestly probably don’t even want to think about this problem. Which is shortsighted and really stupid. In the context of the other things we protect against every day, it makes no sense.
To take the most recent example of the lax approach to just one part of this issue – solar storms – the approach proposed by NERC and approved by FERC requires the utilities to monitor space weather, and have written plans in place to protect against solar storms. FERC estimates an annual compliance burden of 20 hours per utility, costing approximately $1,200. No drills or other practice tests are required. Of the 2,000 utilities monitored by NERC, 90% do not even have to comply. Nor do nuclear power plants or other generating facilities need to comply. That should make us all feel safe at night.
At the same time that we write $645 billion in annual life and health insurance premiums, and $460 billion in policies for property and casualty, we as a society are completely unwilling to protect against one of the potentially greatest natural and man-made threats to our existence. Whistling past the graveyard indeed…
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