WASHINGTON – Congress today was told that the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t identified an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, event as a serious national security threat to the nation’s grid system even though testimony revealed it could making living in the United States “unsustainable” for 70 to 90 percent of the population.
And the few billion dollars it would cost to harden systems against such an occurrence is hardly the tens of billions or hundreds of billions it could cost to repair the damage.
Brandon Wales, director of the DHS Homeland Infrastructure Threat and Risk Analysis Center, was unable to give a cost breakdown so that Congress would know how much money needs to be provided by the federal government in view of the tremendous costs of such hardening defenses that the private utilities would incur.
He, along with other witnesses from the federal government, testified on the consequences of either a natural or man-made EMP event on the national grid before the House Homeland Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz, who is on the House Armed Services Committee, also testified that the military is highly vulnerable to an EMP event, since it relies some 99 percent on the national grid to accomplish its functions.
Franks is sponsor of H.R. 668, known as the Shield Act, which provides authority to protect transformers.
“The potential threat is damage to the transformers” either from a solar storm or the effects of an electromagnetic pulse from a high-altitude nuclear explosion.
The legislation has passed the House of Representatives, but no action is planned at this writing in the U.S. Senate.
At the time the legislation was introduced in February 2011, Franks said that it was vital to secure the high-voltage electrical infrastructure from lethal damage.
“The threat of an electromagnetic pulse weapon represents the single greatest asymmetric capability that could fall into the hands of American enemies,” Franks warned at the time.
“Should a nuclear weapon from a rogue state such as Iran be detonated in Earth’s atmosphere at a sufficient height above the continental United States, the blast of electromagnetic energy could immediately cripple America’s electric power grid.
“Currently, the vast majority of the United States’ infrastructure is unsecured and exposed,” he said.
Franks said that an EMP blast could disable “so large a swath of American technology that between 70 percent to 90 percent of the United States’ population could become unsustainable.”
Franks also referred to the prospect that some of the most intense solar storms are expected to hit Earth by next year, according to scientists of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Academy of Sciences.
Natural EMP events happen during solar storms, which are predicted to reach their 11-year cyclical peak during 2013.
He said that the United States may have no more than 30 minutes to know the accuracy of where an intense solar storm could strike or what the severity of that storm will be, even though satellites do give some 24 hours of warning that such a storm is heading toward Earth. And then, only one in three times such a storm may be severe.
The problem for industry, Franks acknowledged, is not knowing whether to go to the expense of shutting down the national grid system – an action that would have to be taken since the system hasn’t been hardened sufficiently to handle either an intense solar storm and certainly not the pulse effect of a much worse high-altitude nuclear explosion.
Franks said, however, that private industry has provided no evidence that the national grid would not be subjected to a catastrophic EMP event.
Rep. Dan Lungren, chairman of the subcommittee, acknowledged that the private utilities are beholden to their shareholders and rate payers and should have concerns about their capital investments. For that reason, Lungren then wondered why the local utilities aren’t taking more seriously the effects of an EMP event.
Franks said that there is a certain “push-back” by the private utilities in that they don’t find the threat to be all that serious.
For the most part, the utilities have taken some action to harden against a lightning strike which doesn’t have the intensity of a pulse either from an intense solar storm or a high-altitude nuclear explosion.
“The potential liability is off the charts,” Franks warned.
The Arizona congressman pointed out that despite the military’s efforts to harden its systems, it still may be unprepared for an intense EMP event. The military for the most part has begun hardening its systems but, on the civilian side, it is unprepared.
In saying that the civilian side is unprepared for such an event, Franks confirmed that the military is 99 percent dependent on civilian sources of electricity, making the military ultimately vulnerable.
“The military is in a no-win situation,” he said, “since the military doesn’t have a say in hardening the civilian grid. It could be done at minimal cost” compared to overall government spending.
“Worst case scenario is so bad,” Franks said, “that we must prevent it at all costs.”
Michael Aimone who is the director of Business Enterprise Integration in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, told the subcommittee that the Defense Department similarly is concerned about the military dependency on the civilian grid and is experimenting with “mini-grids” that can kick into action should the main grid collapse.
These mini-grids would work critical operations without an interruption, so long as there is fuel to run the generators. He added that his job is to locate that source of fuel to be used by these mini-grids should the national grid be affected by an EMP event.
Joseph McClellan, director of the Office of Electric Reliability in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, sounded similar warnings of private utility unpreparedness to handle a catastrophic EMP event, saying that the effects would be widespread on the national grid system.
He pointed out that the FERC is charged with developing reliability standards, but only industry can identify and implement those standards. He added that the federal government lacks authority to impose mandatory requirements on the private utilities to harden their grid systems.
In his prepared testimony, McClellan said that the FERC is considering actions to address national security threats to the reliability of the U.S. transmission and power system from an EMP “which undergirds our government and economy and helps ensure the health and welfare of our citizens.”
He pointed out that the commission’s jurisdiction is limited to the “bulk power system” under the Federal Power Act and excludes local distribution facilities.
The FPA also excludes all of Alaska and Hawaii, as well as any federal facilities located in these states.
In addition, it excludes all local distribution facilities, including those facilities connected to the defense infrastructure.
He added that his authority excludes some transmission, including virtually all of the grid facilities in certain large cities such as New York.
This has the effect, McClelland said, of “precluding commission action to mitigate cyber or other national security threats to reliability that involve such facilities and major population areas.”
McClelland made it clear that the challenge will be in getting local electrical distribution facilities to take the threat of an EMP seriously and put up the capital investment.
“The question is how to do that,” he said.