Preventing the Mother of All US Power Outages

Preventing the Mother of All US Power Outages
AP Photo/Gerry Broome

The nation faces an array of “new challenges for protecting the national power grid and recovering quickly from a catastrophic power outage.” Furthermore, “This profound risk requires a new national focus.” 

These important assessments come from a December 18 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC). The Council is charged with providing the President advice on the security and resiliency of critical infrastructure sectors. 

NIAC makes clear that electromagnetic pulse (EMP) events, which can be caused by solar flares, an on-the-ground terrorist attack or the high-altitude detonation of a nuclear device, would be devastating. The resultant power surges from EMP occurrences will cripple vast parts of America’s infrastructure by frying and overloading electrical and other high-technology equipment. 

This would create cascading outages that would dwarf the 2003 Northeast Blackout when falling trees in Ohio took out electricity for 50 million people. An EMP event would also require months, if not years, to recover from and get the power back on, in part because large equipment, such as transformers, would need to be replaced.   

The NIAC report is based on input from esteemed energy industry leaders, such as John McAvoy, Chairman, President and CEO of Con Edison and James Robb, President and Chief Executive Officer of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.  

It calls for federal standards to better protect electricity infrastructure and for “a series of regional catastrophic power outage exercises that identify the second- and third-order cascading failures of an outage over time.” 

In sum, it sounds alarm bells based on highly credible information from highly credible sources. Unfortunately, policy makers have hit the snooze button on such alarms previously. And, with the government shutdown occurring four days after the NIAC report, there is a danger this will occur again.

For example, in 2008 the Congressional Research Service (CRS) warned of both high-altitude and on-the-ground EMP attacks. Of the on-the-ground attacks CRS said, “A similar, smaller-scale EMP effect can be created using non-nuclear devices with powerful batteries or reactive chemicals. This method is called High Power Microwave (HPM). Several nations, including reported sponsors of terrorism, may currently have a capability to use EMP as a weapon.”

The NIAC report should be the subject of near-term Congressional hearings. And, as NIAC advocates, the National Security Council should oversee the implementation of the report’s recommendations. 

In many respects, with the electricity grid undergoing a large-scale modernization, now is an ideal time to also make improvements to fortify the grid against EMP vulnerabilities. 

Dr. George Baker, a member of the Congressional EMP Commission who also addressed EMP threats at crucial defense installations during his years at the Department of Defense urges such an approach. He also believes it is essential to identify priority areas to fortify and that an EMP czar be named who will report to the National Security Council about policy and prevention efforts. 

The challenges from an EMP attack are large, but they can be addressed. America’s critical infrastructure simply cannot be at the mercy of rogue states and bad actors. Nor should it be unprotected from solar flares. 

NASA has warned that a major EMP solar storm like the 1859 Carrington Event has a 12 percent chance of occurring each decade. The National Academy of Sciences has estimated the damage could exceed $2 trillion, 20 times the cost of Hurricane Katrina. 

By contrast, Senator Ron Johnson, Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has pointed out that $10 billion will greatly strengthen the grid from a variety of EMP dangers. 

For a more reliable and safer electric grid, and a better future, the country must address EMP issues now.

Paul Steidler is a Senior Fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.

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