It's the reason Iran wants the bomb, and why North Korea continues to threaten the United States.
America's energy infrastructure is aging and vulnerable to devastation from countries that wish to do us harm as well as from our own sun, but Washington politicians and bureaucrats refuse to take simple, relatively inexpensive steps to solve the potentially disastrous problem.
The most devastating threat is posed by an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, and a former member of the congressional EMP commission says both the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are focused on taking out our nation's power grids.
"It is why Iran wants the bomb. We know that from the EMP commission because, in their open source-military writings, they describe using a nuclear weapon to eliminate the United States as an actor from the world stage by means of an EMP attack," said Dr. Peter Pry, who is also executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security.
"Let's not forget that earlier this year North Korea, which has the bomb and, in fact, we assess they probably have what are called super EMP nuclear weapons, which is a nuclear weapon specifically designed to make the EMP effect. That's why all three of their nuclear tests have been so low yield. They're designed to produce gamma rays, not a big explosion. It's the gamma rays that make the EMP effect," Pry told WND. "North Korea, in April, threatened to destroy the United States. The evidence is right there in the headlines if people would only pay attention to them."
"If you're not worried about Iran or North Korea, one does have to be worried about the sun, which cannot be deterred. The sun can cause a catastrophic natural EMP event by means of a solar flare that would strike the magnetosphere," Pry explained. "In some ways it would be even worse than a nuclear EMP attack because something like the 1859 Carrington event, if it happened again today, would be a worldwide phenomenon and collapse electric grids all across the planet and put billions of lives at risk."
The Carrington event was a massive solar flare. It is considered to be the greatest explosion on the sun ever to be observed on Earth. And Pry said we are way overdue for the next one.
"They're supposed to happen about once a century, so we're about 50 years overdue, and we enter the solar maximum in December. The likelihood goes up of something like a Carrington happening during a solar maximum, which lasts a year. Over the next year, we'll be passing through this period where the sun puts out more coronal mass ejections and solar flares. It's a game of Russian roulette. It's just a matter of time before one of these big Carrington-class solar flares from the sun hits the Earth," ry warned.
In addition, Pry contends there are plenty of other conventional threats that could also cripple our nation's energy grid.
"If you protect the grid against EMP, you're also protecting it against all lesser threats, the kinds of things that hurricanes or tornadoes can do, sabotage and cyber attacks as well," said Pry, who noted that terrorists in Mexico successfully blacked out an entire Mexican province this past weekend, leaving more than 420,000 people in the dark and 13 people dead.
Pry said the vulnerability of the nation's power grid is not alarmist or hypothetical. He said proof of that was seen in the massive 2003 blackout that extended throughout the Northeast to parts of the Midwest and Canada.
"The reason the 2003 blackout happened was because of a falling tree branch," he said. "Our grid is so fragile that a falling tree branch, if it hits in the wrong place, can cause a multi-state blackout. The bad guys see that, by the way. They see that obviously if a falling tree branch can cause the 2003 Northeast blackout, just imagine what a nuclear EMP attack could do."
So how complicated and expensive will it be to successfully protect our energy infrastructure from these threats, regardless of their likelihood? Pry said the solutions are readily available and relatively cheap.
"The technology has been around for 50 years because the Department of Defense developed technologies like Faraday cages, surge arresters and blocking devices to protect military systems from EMP. They're not very expensive. The commission estimated that for a one-time investment of $2 billion, we could protect the whole national grid from EMP," said Pry, noting that's the same amount the nation gives to Pakistan each year in foreign aid.
So why haven't steps already been taken after all sorts of promises were by government officials after the blackout? Pry said it's a result of foot dragging by both parties in Washington and the stubbornness of an organization that doesn't answer to anybody.
"It brings us to the bad guy. It's called the North American Electric Reliability Corporation or NERC. They were the ones who were supposed to do something about that," Pry said. "NERC took 10 years. It wasn't until last year that they actually introduced a plan to improve their vegetation plan, to protect the power lines from tree branches. NERC doesn't answer to anybody. There's no government oversight over it. It answers to the industry and has an extremely bad track record about doing anything. And there is no legal authority among any part of the government to compel them to do anything."
Because of that procrastination, Pry and his allies are urging states to address this issue on their own. Maine already has, and Pry said there are many advantages of this approach.
"The solutions don't have to come from Washington. States can launch their own state initiatives. You can island the state grid so that it would be protected from EMP," he said. "This would not prevent the state from receiving power or exporting power to any other state. It would help neighboring states if one state were able to survive because nothing's harder than a black start. If you have one state with the lights still on, it can help bring everybody else back."