US Ups Its Game in Catastrophic Grid Protection

US Ups Its Game in Catastrophic Grid Protection
AP Photo/Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo

The Trump Administration recently launched a game plan to protect the country from one of its greatest and least appreciated catastrophic risks: electromagnetic pulse (EMP) disturbances. These bursts of electromagnetic energy, whether naturally occurring or through malicious human action (i.e., from terrorists or other enemies), can cripple large sections of the electric grid by frying and ruining critical equipment. 

EMP risks have been known and scientifically well documented for decades. They have been extensively addressed at military installations. Yet, at the civilian level, next to nothing has been done, even as we have become increasingly dependent on electricity and electronic devices. 

In Senate testimony on February 27, Dr. George Baker, a leader who has spent decades helping protect defense installations from EMP, emphasized the overdue need for civilian action.

“Government and industry laboratory tests of hundreds of items have revealed EMP vulnerability of grid distribution transformers, grid control electronics, computers, and communication networks…we have become more vulnerable to EMP due to technology advances and the foundational role of electricity and electronics in our everyday life,” said Dr. Baker

 EMP events can be triggered by the following:

  • A space weather event, such as a solar flare
  • Detonation of a nuclear bomb at high altitude
  • An on-the-ground attack using conventional weaponry at key nodes in the electric system 

 Presidential Executive Order

On March 26, President Trump issued an executive order to coordinate the activities of the highest levels of the U.S. government to identify and take key near-term actions to protect the American grid, while also laying the foundation for longer-term, sustainable measures. 

The Secretary of Defense is to, “provide timely operational observations, analyses, forecasts and other products for naturally occurring EMPs.” The Director of National Intelligence is to double down on collecting and analyzing EMP threat assessments. 

Perhaps most important, by late June the Homeland Security Department is to “list the national critical functions and associated priority critical infrastructure systems, networks, and assets, including space-based assets, that, if disrupted, could reasonably result in catastrophic national or regional effects on public health or safety, economic security or national security.”

Also, pivotally important, the Secretary of State is to coordinate with “allies and international partners regarding enhancing resilience to the effects of EMPs.”

Ending Apathy 

Nuclear atmospheric testing and prior solar events show that the effects of EMP can be quite disruptive. Yet, there seems to be a natural human tendency to become complacent and ignore these rare but potentially catastrophic events. As business sage Arnold Glasgow observed, “One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.”

EMP threats are rising for several reasons. North Korea and other rogue nations have or are developing nuclear weapons. On-the-ground terrorists have assessed ways to disable power grids and wreak havoc. And, as time passes, the odds of a naturally occurring solar event rise.  

NASA has warned that a major EMP solar storm like the 1859 Carrington Event, which would cause widespread electric system disruption, 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. 

Next Steps

The country’s exposure to EMP disruptions did not occur overnight nor will it be solved quickly. Widespread changes will have to be made to the electric grid. Dr. Baker estimates it will cost $50 billion to take priority protection actions for the civilian electric grid. 

Many cost synergies can be realized though as much of the grid is old and needs modernization. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration major utilities are already spending $50 billion a year on overall grid improvements. 

EMP issues can only be addressed at the national level and by working with allies and electric utilities. By following the cost effective and necessary approaches that have worked at defense installations, the United States will do much needed catch up work to reduce its risks to EMP. 

We should eagerly and diligently approach this work. It is not a time to panic, though complacency must end.

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

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