During and after Hurricane Harvey, a chemical plant suffered repeated explosions. Because the power went out. Beaumont, Texas was without drinking water. Because the power went out. Gasoline prices across the nation have spiked, thanks to oil refineries going off line. Because the power went out.
Now, we are being told that Hurricane Irma has knocked out the power for Puerto Rico for between four and six months, with repercussions that may prove not just burdensome but life-threatening for large numbers of the island’s residents. Far less powerful hurricanes have taken down the electric grid in parts of Florida and it is anybody’s guess how long and how widespread that problem will be after what’s being called a “nuclear storm” assaults most, if not all, the peninsula, and perhaps beyond.
If all these naturally precipitated nightmares were not enough, North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, has explicitly threatened to destroy the rest of the U.S. electricity infrastructure with an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. Should that happen, blacking out large parts of the continental United States for a protracted period of a year or more duration, the chairman of a blue-ribbon congressional committee has estimated that 9 out of 10 Americans will die.
Because the power went out – and stayed out.
Are you seeing a pattern here?
The conclusion made plain by such developments from the recent past and immediate future is that the most critical of all critical infrastructures – the nation’s bulk power distribution system, better known as the grid – is not resilient. Indeed, it is dangerously vulnerable to both naturally occurring disasters and deliberate enemy action.
If this insight is news to you, it is not to our government. In fact, a compilation of the executive summaries of 11 different studies performed by or for the Feds shows that, whether the grid is subjected to devastating physical sabotage, cyberattacks, man-induced EMP or intense solar storms, the effect could be the same: the end of this country as we know it.
That’s the very, very bad news. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way.
For over 50 years, the U.S. military has been protecting high value assets against such threats to our strategic forces and the communications systems that command and control them. We know how to do it and understand that it can be accomplished reasonably quickly and cost-effectively using such techniques as surge arresters, shunts and Faraday cages.
Unfortunately, to date very little has been done measurably to enhance the grid’s resiliency. There’s plenty of blame to go around. And none of the reasons why we remain needlessly vulnerable stand up to scrutiny – not the irresponsible indifference of the utilities who own 85 percent of the grid; not the Pentagon’s refusal to view this as the national security peril it is; not the fecklessness of federal regulators, executive branch officials and lawmakers – can be allowed to continue to render us catastrophically vulnerable to the power going out catastrophically.
Consequently, several steps are in order – immediately:
First, that blue-ribbon panel, the Congressional Electromagnetic Pulse Threat Commission, needs to have its mandate extended well beyond its planned termination date at the end of this month. Otherwise, all other things being equal, the nation’s most eminent, authoritative and valuable resource on grid vulnerability will be lost when it is arguably needed most. A perfect opportunity to re-up the EMP Commission will occur this week when the Senate considers the National Defense Authorization Act.
Second, the Commission’s previous recommendations for enhancing grid resiliency – dating back to 2004 – should be adopted and aggressively implemented by President Trump and/or the Congress. There is simply no time to waste.
Finally, the commitment expressed by Mr. Trump and legislators on both sides of the aisle to upgrade America’s infrastructure must begin with a commitment to design, build and operate a new grid featuring modern electrical power plants, transformers, control systems, etc., that are “hardened” against the various military and natural perils we confront today and will face tomorrow.
We are all on notice: A failure to act now leaves us in unacceptable, even mortal peril when, not if, the power goes out.