President of Special Projects for the Center for Security Policy Tommy Waller joined SiriusXM host Amanda House on Breitbart News Sunday to discuss the vulnerability of America’s power grid to sabotage.
Waller described the grid as “essentially the largest, most complicated machine ever developed by humans.”
“What it consists of is all of the assets that either generate electricity, transmit that electricity across distances, and then distribute it to the users that need it,” he said.
With over 300 million users, the complex American power grid is “the foundation upon which all of our critical infrastructures function,” and Waller cautioned it has several components that are particularly vulnerable to sabotage.
“One of them are these extra-high-voltage transformers, EHV transformers,” he said. “In order for electricity to be transmitted over a long distance, they have to step the voltage up. At the end of that transfer, they have to step the voltage down.”
“Those transformers are essentially irreplaceable. It takes about 18 months to build them. They’re custom-built, almost exclusively overseas. We have roughly 2,000 of these EHV transformers around the country and most of them are completely unprotected,” he said.
Waller said another vulnerability is presented by the SCADA controls, the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition computers that allow the grid to function.
“Without the SCADAs to run the grid, you could of course have an upset. You could have some limited damage. But the transformers – without those transformers in our current grid infrastructure, if those were to go away, you would have a loss of electricity for a very, very long time,” he said.
Waller clarified that sabotage, which could involve methods as crude as physically wrecking the transformers with simple weapons or explosives, could compromise the power grid for much longer than the days or weeks of power loss associated with hurricanes and other natural events.
“A study done by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found that just the right nine substations attacked in the United States – if someone just with rifles attacked the right nine substations – the cascading failures and power outages could put us in a blackout that could last about 18 months,” he reported.
Waller said the most catastrophic possible attack would be conducted with an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon, or possibly a natural phenomenon that duplicates the effects of one. He explained the EMP phenomenon was first discovered when the United States began conducting nuclear bomb tests outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, an altitude of about 30 kilometers or higher. The strength of the electromagnetic pulse released by a nuclear blast outside of the atmosphere stunned the researchers who discovered it.
“What happens when a nuclear weapon detonates at that altitude is, there’s three series of pulses. One, the E1 pulse, happens within a manner of nanoseconds. Every electron is stripped off of every atom and travels towards Earth in a manner of nanoseconds,” he explained.
“That E1 pulse can couple into really, really small conductors in electronics, so the computers that we operate everything in our lives with – our cell phones, if they are plugged in, chances are they will get fried. The vehicles that we drive, many of them could fail to function because of that E1 pulse,” he said.
“Within a fraction of a second, that E1 pulse is followed by E2, which is much like natural lightning – but just imagine natural lightning that takes place at one point, this would be over a widespread area,” he continued.
This would be followed by the E3 pulse, a wave of energy released as the nuclear explosion interacts with the Earth’s magnetosphere, much as the aurora borealis is created by much less violent shifts in the magnetosphere or solar storms cause relatively mild magnetic disruptions when the energy they release reaches our planet.
Waller explained the E3 pulse from a nuclear EMP strike would not inflict as much damage on electronics as the E1 pulse did, but it would have catastrophic effects on the long conductors found in our power grid and communications networks, from power transmission lines to fiber optics. The resulting power surge through the grid could destroy devices connected to it, including the computers and transformers vital to grid operation.
Waller warned that all of America’s potential adversaries understand the vulnerabilities of our power grid and view attacking it as “the best method to take us down,” in line with the advice given by ancient strategist Sun Tzu to subdue enemies without fighting them.
“This is a phenomenon that’s been studied for decades by the federal government,” he said. “There are hundreds of reports, unclassified and classified, that both say that an EMP attack on America could black out the nation for years and result in up to 90 percent of our population dying.”
Waller said electromagnetic warfare plans can be found in the cyber warfare doctrine of adversary nations like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.
“These are countries that practice this sort of thing. They even practice protecting their own grids. Unfortunately, we’ve done very little of that in our own nation,” he said.
Waller said the U.S. government has largely “failed” to prepare for attacks on the power grid, although he applauded movement toward identifying the scope of the problem under the Trump administration.
“It was just incredible, for years and years and years, you wouldn’t even hear government bureaucrats use those three acronyms – like they were scared to say it. We understand the president right now is working on an executive order on EMP, which could be a momentous accomplishment, if he’s able to author such an executive order and it’s able to be executed,” he said.
Waller called for an effort on the scale of the Manhattan Project to address the vulnerability of the power grid, warning that the threat is not science fiction and even the low-end estimates for fatalities from a major EMP strike on the United States assume two-thirds of the population would be killed.
“If you didn’t have electricity, what could you do?” he asked. “How would you live? How would your family live?”
Waller recommended the work of the Secure the Grid Coalition, an initiative spearheaded by the Center for Security Policy that is working to get federal, state, and local governments to address the threat.
“The Manhattan Project, they didn’t seek to create a nuclear warfighting strategy or a nuclear triad. They just wanted a bomb,” he observed. “They made two bombs and they both worked. What we need is a Manhattan Project-style effort to just get one city, one state secure, and then that will inspire the change throughout the rest of the country.”