Chaos If the Lights Go Out

The U.S. remains highly vulnerable to an attack on its electrical grid.

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On October 27th, National Geographic premiered a shocking docu-drama entitled "American Blackout," which depicted a nationwide power failure brought on by a cyber-attack. Cut off from modern civilization's lifeblood of electricity, society crumbled, leading to more than 300,000 deaths and more than $1 trillion in damages. All within ten days.

Imagine a blackout lasting months, or longer. No lights, refrigeration, communications, mass transportation, clean water, sewage systems, medical devices and other essentials. Prolonged power outages during Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy left behind death and destruction, raising the damage totals to roughly $150 billion combined. But what if this happened across America? We'd be transported back to the 19th century in a flash. Perhaps literally.

In one of the most dangerous, yet underreported threats to national security, we remain highly vulnerable to an Electro-Magnetic Pulse attack. A nuclear device exploding some 20 miles above our shores could wipe out the electrical grid in 20 to 30 states, if not nationwide, for a year or more. According to William Graham, the Chairman of the EMP Threat Commission, a Congressionally-sponsored panel mandated in 2001, the long term destruction of our power grid could kill 9 in 10 Americans.

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All our enemies need to inflict this crippling blow is a ship, an unsophisticated missile like a Scud, and a nuclear warhead. They could launch from the Atlantic or Pacific Coasts or the Gulf of Mexico without being detected. We already have real world data points to understand the potential damage. In 1962, a high altitude U.S. nuclear test over the mid-Pacific dubbed "Starfish Prime" shorted out lights in Hawaii – nearly 900 miles away. 

Though launching an EMP attack against America would be suicidal for nations like North Korea, China or Russia, non-state terror groups like al-Qaida don't share such fears. If Iran's regime was on its deathbed, it wouldn't fear retaliation either. According to press reports this week, North Korea is already using Russian technology to develop EMP weapons to use against South Korea.

Besides EMP, major solar storms could also stop the electrical grid. In March 1989, Quebec's power supply was taken off-line through coronal mass ejections causing severe disruptions in the earth's magnetic field – and leading to a province-wide blackout.

So how can we protect ourselves?

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As we know from countless generations of those who served in the military, freedom isn't free. Someone has to pay to harden the grid, including more than 1,000 major transformers and related sensitive electrical components across the country. By some estimates, that could cost between $10 and $20 billion over five years. Not surprisingly, the electric industry doesn't want to pay. Instead of hardening a fragile grid and gradually passing along the minimal per capita costs on to consumers, it has banded together to fight off Congressional efforts to help guarantee public safety. 

It's like a private security company saying they don't need guns; nightsticks will do just fine. But unlike the skeptics who would immediately cry foul, since few grasp the threat, there is not enough public pressure on the industry. The industry’s advocate, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, is conducting its second exercise to simulate grid loss on Nov. 13, though it’s doubtful that this will produce the wake-up call that the nation needs to address this threat.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., are co-sponsors of a bill with bi-partisan support, the Secure High-Voltage Infrastructure from Lethal Damage Act, H.R. 2417, known as the SHIELD Act. It would force electric utility companies to harden our grid against EMP and solar storm threats.  

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