Americans have discovered that Silicon Valley and much of the San Francisco Bay area literally dodged a bullet – or more precisely 110 of them – last April. The grace of God and quick thinking by control room operators narrowly averted disaster when a highly professional and disciplined attack on an electric substation outside San Jose might have inflicted a protracted blackout on millions of us and our economy.
While information about this close-call by unknown assailants (who are, presumably, still at large) has been known by some of us for months, it came to the public’s attention in a big way after the Wall Street Journal gave it front-page treatment last week. Suddenly, the issue of the vulnerability of our bulk power distribution system (popularly known as “the grid”) is no longer a matter of speculation or the exclusive preserve of specialists.
We are all on notice: Existential threats to our nation and lives are real and present dangers. We ignore them at our extreme peril.
As the media began addressing this issue in earnest for the first time, lawmakers have started expressing appropriate concern. Notably, four top Senate Democrats – Majority Leader Harry Reid, Energy Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Fienstein and Energy Subcommittee Chairman Al Franken – have written regulators asking what is being done to prevent a recurrence of the San Jose sabotage, possibly with vastly more devastating effects. They recognize that an America without electric power is not the America we know; it will not support either the society or the population we have today.
Unfortunately, the threat is not just from attackers like those who damaged and nearly destroyed seventeen, essentially irreplaceable high-voltage transformers at the Metcalf substation. Enemies of this nation, if not the American people, are well aware that the grid could be seriously disrupted, if not substantially destroyed, by the use of the following techniques:
- Radio Frequency weapons can be assembled using readily available electronic equipment or devices marketed as electromagnetic pulse (EMP) testers. Such weapons could generate immense power loads in localized areas and cause catastrophic failures of the large transformers like Metcalf’s that make up the backbone of the grid.
- Cyber warfare: The U.S. electric grid, like other critical infrastructure, is susceptible to hacking that could commandeer its computerized control systems known as SCADAs and other electronics systems. At the direction of our enemies, such devices could be used to overload transformers with an effect similar to the Stuxnet worm’s destructive hijacking of Iranian centrifuges a few years back.
- The most efficient way to devastate the U.S. grid, however, would be to detonate a nuclear weapon high over the country. That would unleash a powerful series of electromagnetic pulses, with lethal effect on unprotected microcircuits, other electronics, transformers and the critical infrastructures they support over large areas or even most of the country, depending on the height of burst.
Such attacks could truly create, to quote former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “a world without America” – something he declared was not only “desirable, but achievable.” The nuclear weapons Iran is now, thanks to President Obama’s recent deal, closer than ever to having make this boast credible.
Last Thursday, at an event in Washington sponsored by EMPAct America and the Reserve Officers Association, Senator Ted Cruz and former Clinton Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey made clear that the threat of EMP attack from Iran must be taken seriously. Of particular concern is the possibility than an Iranian missile could be launched for this purpose from a ship off our coast, undetected and in a manner that would make it difficult to determine who was responsible for the catastrophe that would ensue.
But even if foes who fully understand the Achilles’ heel grid vulnerability represents and who have, or are getting, the means to exploit it refrain from doing so, legislators and the rest of us need to recognize an alarming reality: At some point in the foreseeable future, the sun will absolutely, positively cause similar devastation as a high-altitude EMP attack.
In fact, we missed by one week last year having what is known as a Carrington-class solar storm subject the earth to an intense geomagnetic disturbance, one that would have fried our unprotected grid. And since these intense storms hit our planet roughly every 150 years – and the last one was 155 years ago – we are overdue.
The good news is that we know how to protect our electric and other critical infrastructures against everything from the San Jose-style sapper attack on up to solar flaring. The military has been “hardening” its nuclear forces and associated command-and-control systems against these sorts of threats for decades. The technology is available, the costs are affordable. Indeed, the costs of inaction are unsupportable.
This week, the Center for Security Policy is publishing a compendium of eleven different federal studies and reports conducted over the past decade. They all come to basically the same conclusion: What might be called the central nervous system of our society – the electric grid – is in peril, and so are we. No more studies are needed. What is required is the wit and the will to safeguard the grid against all hazards. And we need it protected now!