Threat or menace?: Gaging electromagnetic risks to the electric grid

Senate committee hears cybergeddon scenarios of electromagnetic threat

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Credit: NASA

The United States is sorely unprepared for electromagnetic threats – which could originate in space from the Sun or a terrorist nuclear device exploded in the atmosphere -- to the nation’s electric grid.

That was the main conclusion from a number of experts testifying before a Senate committee hearing entitled “Protecting the Electric Grid from the Potential Threats of Solar Storms and Electromagnetic Pulse” this week.

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The threat posed by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or solar weather burst of high-power electromagnetic radiation could have a debilitating impact on the nation's critical electrical infrastructure, as well as other key assets that depend on electricity. These events could lead to power outages over broad geographic areas for extended durations. Addressing these risks requires collaboration among multiple government and industry; with the Department of Homeland Security in the lead role for overall infrastructure protection efforts, working in coordination with Department of Energy, said the Christopher Currie, Director, Homeland Security and Justice with the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The hearing’s tone hovered somewhere between offering a measured response to a potentially serious threat and doomsday scenarios, especially where nuclear attacks that would generate an EMP are concerned.

“The purpose of this hearing is basically to pull our heads out of the sand,” said Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “We also know that the potential consequence of any attack or event on the grid is very high. In a real-life example, in 2003, a cascading failure across the grid in the Northeast left almost 50 million people without power, many for days. One federal study identified nine critical substations that could be disabled and potentially bring down the entire U.S. grid for more than 18 months. The threats of solar weather and high-altitude electromagnetic pulse are unique in that they can affect a vast region of the country. They may damage assets on the grid that are expensive, difficult and time-consuming to replace.”

Others were in the same boat.

“Why has Washington failed to act against the EMP threat? A big part of the problem is that policymakers and the public still fail to understand that EMP, and the catastrophic consequences of an EMP event, are not science fiction. The EMP threat is as real as the Sun and as inevitable as a solar flare. The EMP threat is as real as nuclear threats from Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.,” said US Ambassador R. James Woolsey Chairman, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Former Director of Central Intelligence. “Nuclear EMP attack is part of the military doctrines, plans and exercises of all of these nations for a revolutionary new way of warfare that focuses on attacking electric grids and civilian critical infrastructures--what they call Total Information Warfare or No Contact Wars, and what some western analysts call Cybergeddon or Blackout Wars.”

Woolsey continued: “The nuclear EMP threat is as real as North Korea's KSM-3 satellite, that regularly orbits over the U.S. on the optimum trajectory and altitude to evade our National Missile Defenses and, if the KSM-3 were a nuclear warhead, to place an EMP field over all 48 contiguous United States. The EMP threat is as real as non-nuclear radiofrequency weapons that have already been used by terrorists and criminals in Europe and Asia, and no doubt will sooner or later be used here against America.”

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Indeed warnings have been issued in the past by a number of groups but have largely been ignored.   The GAO noted that the EMP Commission, established by statute and comprised of subject matter experts, issued recommendations in 2008 addressing the preparation, protection and recovery of critical infrastructures against a possible EMP attack that remain largely unheeded.

The GAO noted that in 2012, DHS partnered with industry to develop a prototype transformer that could significantly reduce the time to transport, install, and energize a transformer to aid recovery from power outages associated with transformer failures from several months to less than one week.

It wasn’t clear any such devices were ever implemented.

Protecting the grid from space-weather events or coronal mass ejections) solar flares) is something that should be done now.

“Very serious consequences are estimated for such an event of a magnitude that can be expected to occur at random once per century, with greater events occurring with lower probability and lesser events more frequently,” said Richard Garwin an IBM Fellow Emeritus with theIBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. “I emphasize that a “once per century” event might occur next week; it has a probability of 10% of occurring within the next ten years—a time in which we can and should take measures to reduce and essentially eliminate its impact on the Bulk Power System of the United States.”

Garwin offered four recommendations that could help protect the grid:

  1. Train and equip utility and transmission operators to bring down within seconds (switch off) transmission lines that are at risk of being damaged.

  2. Implement “rapid islanding” of the grid, to maintain a large fraction of the power consumers in operation by the use of whatever island generation capacity exists; this also facilitates restoring the Bulk Power System to operation, in contrast with a “black start.”

  3. Fit transmission lines on a priority basis with "neutral current blocking devices" (capacitors) in the common neutral-to-ground link of the 3-phase transformers of EHV transmission systems at one end of the line-- whether 3-phase transformers or 3 single- phase transformers. Where transformers at both ends are autotransformers this may not be possible, in which case series-blocking capacitors in the power lines themselves should be installed (even if shorted until an EMP event is recognized).

  4. Alert grid operators and others to a high-altitude nuclear explosion within milliseconds of the event (by detection of the unambiguous very brief E1—pronounced “Ee-one”-- pulse).

“There are opportunities for protecting the electric grid from these threats, but they are costly. The EMP Commission, for example, projected that hardening the grid could cost $2 billion. Compared to the likely economic impact of one of these events, these costs may well be worth it.”

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