Government failing to fully address EMP threats to the grid, officials say

Not enough is being done to halt risks that could take us back to a technology world akin to 100 years ago

high voltage power lines
Credit: Robert Anders

Government agencies have done some work to mitigate the danger of electromagnetic threats to the electrical grid, but it’s not enough, says the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Despite some action by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—such as developing a prototype transformer that would significantly speed recovery from a power outage caused by a failed transformer and studying the impacts of severe space weather, such as solar storms—more must be done to protect the grid, Homeland Security News Wire reports on the April-published GAO study (PDF).

One problem is that the DHS hasn’t figured out its “internal roles and responsibilities” for dealing with the risks, the GAO says. That impacts “coordination with external partners.”

Recommendations were made in 2008 to harden the grid to protect against electromagnetic pulses (EMPs).

What are EMPs?

EMPs are quick bursts of electromagnetic energy that produce equipment-damaging currents and excessive voltages. They can occur naturally, such as through a lightning strike, through equipment failure, or through use of EMP-producing weapons. Nuclear explosions, for example, can cause EMPs.

“Electromagnetic risks caused by a man-made EMP or a naturally occurring solar weather event could have a significant impact on the nation's electric grid,” the GAO reports. “Other infrastructure sectors that depend on electricity, such as communications,” would be affected, too.

+ More on Network World: Threat or menace? Gaging electromagnetic risks to the electric grid +

What’s more, the incident could cover a large geographic area and impact it for “extended durations,” the GAO says.

EMPs aren’t fiction, although they have been featured in books and movies. Frankenstein arose after a lightning strike, for example. And many say EMPs pose a real threat. Power supplies in Quebec were interrupted in 1989 by a geomagnetic storm. And in 2010, a senior British defense official warned that countries might try to cause an EMP to interrupt electronics.

“Within DHS, there is recognition that space weather and power grid failure are significant risk events,” the GAO says. And DHS has found that those pose a “great risk to the security of the nation.”

But DHS and the Department of Energy (DOE) have not reported taking “any actions to identify critical electrical infrastructure assets as called for” in the 2008 recommendations.

DHS, in fact, does “not have a statutory obligation specifically to address the recommendations” made in 2008 by the EMP Commission, the Homeland Security News Wire points out in its article. And it says the GAO recognizes that.

DHS is moving on some projects coordinated with stakeholders, Homeland Security News Wire says. Those include “developing plans to address long-term power outages, participation in exercises, and research and development activities.”

The hazards of not protecting the grid from EMPs

“A blast that could darken the world” was how Fox News described EMPs in a 2014 story about EMP-protective devices that a developer said could withstand a surge.

Experts say Faraday cages, grounded metal screens surrounding a piece of equipment to exclude electrostatic and electromagnetic influences, could be a step towards protecting against EMPs.

Without such protection, we would be left “in a technology world equivalent to the 1800s,” Fox News said. “Planes could fall from the skies, transportation could come to a screeching halt, water and sewage systems could suddenly cease to work, and on and on.”

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