WASHINGTON – Just as concern is peaking over the prospect of a catastrophic electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, event from either natural or man-made causes that could cripple the U.S. national electric grid, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has decided to cut back on training for electric utilities to harden their facilities to protect them.
DHS is charged with protecting the country’ critical infrastructures, including the national electric grid system, which would be dramatically and possibility irreversibly affected by a major EMP event.
DHS officials, who are aware of EMP and its potentially catastrophic effects on the nation’s critical infrastructure, still does not regard EMP as one of the 15 National Planning Scenarios which outline implementation instructions for national calamities, including flooding and acts of terrorism.
These and other concerns about the potential for an EMP and its effect were brought out in a conference near Capitol Hill by a newly formed EMP Coalition, which was created to ensure the resiliency of the U.S. electrical grid system and the critical national security and civilian infrastructures that depend on it.
The coalition is co-chaired by former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey.
At the conference, Woolsey was joined by former Ambassador Henry Cooper, former director of the office of the Strategic Defense Initiative and currently chairman of High Frontier; and Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, former CIA analyst who was staff director of the congressionally mandated EMP commission and is now executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, a congressional advisory board.
In a recent discussion he had with a “high-level” DHS official, Cooper said that the official whom he wouldn’t name said that “no one at DHS pays any attention to those planning scenarios.”
In a separate interview with WND, however, Pry added that the lack of a DHS planning scenario has a direct impact on state and local governments that look to Washington for guidance on handling catastrophic events such as an EMP.
Without that guidance, Pry said state and local governments aren’t preparing for an EMP, even though its effects directly would impact people at the state and local levels.
Woolsey said that the national grid, which underlies the nation’s critical infrastructures, has little or no protection.
The former CIA director said that the U.S. in all has 18 critical infrastructures, 17 of which depend on one key infrastructure, the electric grid system.
He said that while the national grid underlies those critical infrastructures that include food and water delivery, transportation, financial services, telecommunications and emergency services, there is little or no protection of the grid.
“Not a single thought is being given to security of the grid,” Woolsey said. “The country is not well-served by the way in which the grid is protected and who protects it.”
He said that security of the grid primarily is in the hands of trade organizations represented by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC.
“We are at war with those who want to bring down the grid,” Woolsey said. “Yet, there are 3,500 generals – the local electric utilities – who are in charge of security.”
Because the public utility companies don’t want an increase in price, Woolsey said they spend little on grid security.
“No one is in charge of security for the grid,” he said.
The most vulnerable portions of the grid, Woolsey said, are the large transformers which are no longer made in the United States and take extended time to replace even under normal conditions.
In all, he said, there are some 3,000 such large transformers, but the U.S. has in reserve only five percent of the total should replacements be required.
Woolsey underscored the vulnerability of these large transformers by citing a recent case in San Jose, Calif., in which “professionals” sought to disable one of the large transformers by shooting AK-47 rounds into it.
He said that just shooting into the transformers could destroy it, since numerous bullet holes would cause coolants to seep out, causing the transformers to overheat and fry their internal electronics.
An EMP event over the Boston-to-Washington corridor – one of the most populated portions of the U.S. – would cost upwards of $1 trillion and take years to recover, affecting all the people living in that area. Among the impacts expected would be starvation and death.
Both Woolsey and Pry underscored the fact that the loss of the grid would trigger cascading failures of all the critical infrastructures on which society depends, even if a portion were knocked out.
Wolsey pointed out that the NERC has opposed any federal efforts to strengthen the grid or provide additional security beyond enclosing utilities in storm fences, primarily due to cost. They also oppose federal efforts, such as the recently introduced SHIELD Act by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., which would give the federal government authority to order and ensure that hardware in the local utilities are capable of withstanding a direct EMP attack, whether natural or man-made.
The SHIELD Act was introduced in the previous two Congresses, but only passed the House, with no action in the Senate.
Pry said the cost to harden the grid and the nation’s critical infrastructures would amount to no more than $2 billion and even that cost, he added, has gone down to technology advancements.
Woolsey said that the most immediate concern is the EMP effects from the increasing solar storms which are erupting on the surface of the sun, since it is reaching what is termed as a solar storm maximum in its 11-year cycle.
Cooper said that solar storm maximum is reaching its most intense period this year and next. The potential impact from solar flares was underscored over the past weekend after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said its space telescope aimed at the sun spotted a gigantic hole in the solar atmosphere.
The dark spot, some of which can have a diameter as large as seven earths placed together, spews solar materials in all directions into space.
This material, known as solar flares, can be more than 20 times the size of the Earth. These flares send out electromagnetic energy in all directions and, if positioned facing Earth, can interfere with the Earth’s magnetic poles.
A direct hit could either damage or fry vulnerable electronics, including the unprotected electric grid and electronic components, as well as automated control systems that operate critical infrastructures including telecommunications, food and water delivery, automated financial systems, transportation and emergency services.
The latest dark spot, known also as a coronal hole, appeared over the sun’s north pole now that it is entering into its most intense 11-year cycle.
Pry and Cooper, however, warned of the effects of a man-made EMP attack, too.
Pry pointed to the recent discovery of components for Cuban SA-2s – surface-to-air missiles – on a North Korean freighter in the Panama Canal.
This nuclear-capable missile, he warned, could cause the total collapse of the Eastern grid if exploded at a high altitude off the Eastern seaboard, including the Gulf of Mexico.
Detonation of one “super-EMP” nuclear warhead on one of the SA-2s would effectively knock out the Eastern grid which services 70 percent of the U.S. population, he said.
A “super-EMP” nuclear bomb, he said, is lighter than the regular nuclear weapons and is designed to emit greater amounts of gamma rays – a form of electromagnetic energy – that is the most destructive of the types of EMP events which include lightning and solar flares.
Pry also warned about a type of EMP device – radio frequency weapons – which easily can be made by terrorists, criminals or “madmen” by going to the Internet and obtaining the needed low-level technology to make it.
He said that such individuals, even acting alone, could place such an RF weapon near industrial facilities, including large transformers and, as with rifle shots, could totally disable a transformer’s vulnerable electronics.
Like Woolsey, Pry underscored the lack of security of the nation’s electric grid system:
“No one is in charge of security to protect the grid.”