Last Updated on January 15, 2015
The following article has been generously contributed by James V. DeLong and appeared originally on the American Enterprise Institute.
S. M. Stirling is a science fiction/fantasy writer who specializes in alternate future history. He likes to start from the question “what if X happened?” and then work out the ramifications over many volumes and decades.
His current series is called The Change, and it starts off with a simple premise: one day, electricity stops working. What happens next is not pretty. Stirling is a ruthless realist, and without electricity our civilization is about a week from cannibalism. Heat and water disappear, cars and trucks don’t run, planes fall out of the sky, supermarkets exhaust their few days of food, and the economic system collapses because money, which now mostly consists of electronic blips, vanishes. Since no way exists to move food to people or people to food, some in calorie-rich rural areas survive, but few others, and everywhere within 30 miles of a city becomes a dead zone. The die-off exceeds 99.5 percent.
Stirling is not alone in his conclusions about the consequences of a grid blackout. In 2009, historian William Forstchen, who has written some careful alternate history novels with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, published One Second After, the story of a town in North Carolina following a devastating electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event. These works have been followed by a slew of other tales of survival, or lack thereof, in a world without electricity.
The grid, which is one huge interconnected network that is sometimes described as the most complex machine ever made, is scarily vulnerable to EMP events.
The conclusions reached by Forstchen and the other authors parallel Stirling’s. If the grid goes down due to an EMP event, it will be a catastrophe. And the power will not soon be restored. The control mechanisms will have been fried and the big transformers turned into bricks, and the capability to replace these devices without power is zero. The US capacity to make big transformers has atrophied, and they are also difficult to transport because of their size (as big as a house) and weight (400 tons or more). So without power, it becomes impossible to recover from the loss of power, and even if the damage were limited to a single region the barriers to restoring the system would be immense. The authors may be too pessimistic about vehicles; some experts think that these, and other small, discrete devices, would survive. But these depend on power to refine and move the fuel, so the reprieve would be short.
Not science fiction: The real risks of EMP events
Actually, these books do not belong on the SF/fantasy shelf. They go in the realism section. In 2001, Congress created an EMP Commission, which issued reports in 2004 and 2008. Its alarming conclusions could have been written by Stirling, and they have been confirmed by reputable analyses since, performed under the auspices of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the National Academy of Sciences, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the Departments of Homeland Security, Energy, and Defense. (A list of government documents on grid security is here.) The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) does not disagree. In March 2012 it accepted as “plausible” a scenario in which a solar event cut off the power to 100 million people.
The grid, which is one huge interconnected network that is sometimes described as the most complex machine ever made, is scarily vulnerable to EMP events.
Such events can come from two sources. One is natural. In this scenario, solar activity produces a storm of long-wave radiation called E3 that gloms onto the wiring of the grid and destroys some or all of its 3550 crucial extra high voltage (230 kilovolts and up) transformers.
The major instance was in 1859, when an EMP from a solar storm shut down the electrical system, which at the time meant the telegraph. This “Carrington Event,” named after a British astronomer, was a minor oddity, noted and largely forgotten. But in the century and a half since, electricity has permeated every aspect of life, and shutting down the electric grid would, as Stirling vividly demonstrates, pretty much end civilization as we know it.
The Carrington Event was not unusual. An examination of the historical record by Lloyds of London found frequent occurrences in the past, judging by observations of phenomena such as the Northern Lights a long way south of the norm, and calculated that equivalent EMPs can be expected about every 151 years. A 2012 article in Space Weather estimated the chances of a Carrington-level event during the next ten years as 12 percent, and in that year we came close to disaster when a solar storm bigger than Carrington missed the Earth by about a week.
Smaller solar storms occur more often. The record includes 1921 (the Railroad Storm), 1989 (the Quebec Storm), and 1993 (the Halloween Storm). While not as devastating as a Carrington Event, these could still kill millions. A study by Oak Ridge National Laboratories calculated that the 1921 storm applied to today’s grid could damage or destroy 300 transformers and interrupt service to 130 million people, possibly for years. Lloyds estimated the expected frequency of Quebec-level storms as 38 years, and concluded that an event somewhere between the Railroad and the Carrington could shut down the grid from Boston to Washington. It also noted that the time of maximum danger is about two years after a solar sunspot maximum, and the latest of these concluded in 2013 — so happy 2015 to all.
The second possible cause of an EMP is enemy action. A high-altitude detonation of a nuclear device, or of a blastless specialized EMP weapon, would produce not only E3 radiation but a shorter-wave kind called E1. While E3 fries the transformers, E1 destroys the control mechanisms and relays. (There is also an E2, but it is like lightning, and the system is protected against it.)
E1 has not been studied as thoroughly as E3 because real data is limited to the results of US or Soviet nuclear tests, and much of it is still classified. But enough is known to ring the alarm bells. E1 could destroy whatever E3 left.
Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran have all commented on the possibilities of EMP warfare, and it seems that militant Islam is equally aware.
No one can calculate the odds of enemy action. Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran have all commented on the possibilities of EMP warfare, and it seems that militant Islam is equally aware. Any nation or group that lays its hands on a missile could launch an EMP attack. Indeed, former CIA head James Woolsey, one of the leaders of the EMP-awareness movement, comments that an EMP weapon could be launched with a weather balloon.
The conclusions of the various study groups are not definitive; certainty is impossible, at least until the next solar storm or nuclear attack gives us better data (assuming the machines to process it would still exist), but the evidence is solid. The conclusion that we need to harden the grid immediately is about as clear as anything can be, as a matter of elementary risk analysis. The cost question has received little attention, but the costs of hardening the grid look trivial. The best estimates are that the transformers could be protected against E3 for $500 million, which would take care of natural events, and the system could be shielded against both E1 and E3 for $2 billion. The utility industry spends $80 billion per year on capital expenditures, so the cost of protection is chickenfeed.
EMPs are not the only threat to the grid. In April 2013, snipers spent 19 minutes shooting up a power station near San Jose, Calif., and knocked out 17 big transformers. The utility was able to make up the power loss from other stations, but repairs took 27 days. The identities and motives of the perpetrators remain unknown, but another attempt could take down large sections of the grid, especially as the EPA-mandated shutdown of coal plants reduces the margin of generating capacity.
Another threat is from cyber attacks. The grid runs on software code, which means that it could be hacked. The head of NSA recently warned that he expects major attacks within the next decade, and that it is a question of “when,” not “if.”
In November 2014, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ordered the industry to start thinking seriously about protection against physical attacks. Plans must be developed, and, eventually, protective measures implemented, albeit on a leisurely schedule, since there is no deadline for completing protective measures.
Cybersecurity was the subject of an executive order in 2013 that designated the grid as critical infrastructure. Again, however, the outcome is unclear; the industry appears to be under a mandate to think about doing something, but the required actions and timetable are murky.
Even less has happened on the front of hardening the grid against the EMP threat, and why nothing happens is an enigma. The industry group called the North American Reliability Council (NERC) is the primary mover on the issue, and in 2012 it issued a report disagreeing with everyone who worries about the problem. It concluded, without linking the result to any particular evidence, that the most likely result of a solar storm would be temporary voltage instability, and that this represented no serious threat and could be handled by better operating procedures, including the possibility of shutting down the grid if a solar storm impends.
FERC thereupon conducted a rulemaking that directed the industry to protect against natural storms by developing better operating procedures, as each company sees fit, and saying that in Phase II of the proceeding it may think about telling the companies to think about thinking about doing more. FERC and the industry also conducted an exercise called Grid EX II designed to test the grid. It concluded, insofar as one can penetrate a cloud of gobbledygook, that good communications in a crisis are a fine thing. Such details as how to communicate when the power to enable the communication is down were not mentioned.
The NERC report is strange. The most elementary principle of risk assessment is to trade off level of risk, certainty of risk, severity of consequences, and cost of prevention. NERC did none of this, saying, in essence: “Let’s see – serious people, including the Oak Ridge Laboratory, several distinguished special commissions, and a study group under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, regard the risk of a civilization-destroying event as dangerously high, but we don’t think the probability rises to 51 percent, so we recommend against spending even a trivial amount. And, by the way, we see no need to explain why we think these groups wrong.”
The cost question has received little attention, but the costs of hardening the grid look trivial.
In addition, NERC and then FERC looked only at natural events and E3, holding that national defense is the province of the DOD, not NERC, even though the DOD has no power to order the utilities to harden, and one might think that defense against malevolent action is well within the province of the utilities. One does not see banks refuse to protect their computers against Russian or Chinese hackers on the ground that this constitutes enemy action and that DOD should do something about it if only it had the authority, which it does not.
A high-level DHS advisory group assembled in 2011 was unconvinced of the worst-case scenarios, particularly the Oak Ridge estimate of the impact of a storm equal to 1921, but concluded nonetheless that “Mitigation should be undertaken as soon as possible to reduce the vulnerability of the US grid,” given that the cost would be modest compared with the cost any storm, such as the $8 billion in damages in 2003.
NERC’s approach is so deficient as to be beyond incompetence, because no one could possibly write such a risk assessment with a straight face. It would be like saying, “I think the chance that my house will burn down next year is only 49 percent, so I don’t need insurance.”
The puzzle is that we know that the utility people are not incompetent. Their performance in keeping the grid up and running is extraordinary, especially because they do it despite the convolutions of regulation by multiple federal agencies and 50 states, plus heavy pressure from rent-seeking interest groups.
Simple incompetence cannot always explain a phenomenon
Something is out of whack here. An old saw says that one should never assume that deep motives are at work when simple incompetence will explain a phenomenon, but perhaps the adage needs to be reversed in this case. Like an unseen planet, some force is distorting the orbits.
The behavior of the federal government is puzzling. The National Strategy for CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives) Standards from May 2011 does not mention “EMP” or “electromagnetic,” and the most recent statement about EMPs on the DHS website, from September 2012, is short on specifics, though it does contain the reassuring news that DHS is working on both better cables and a prototype Recovery Transformer (REcX) Project. Mostly, it says the agency “has pursued a deeper understanding.” The 2012 FEMA report opining that 100 million people could lose power from a natural EMP was kept secret until a few days ago, when a FOIA request by the Washington Free Beacon sprang the summary and a PowerPoint from the agency; the body of the report remains non-public.
FERC defers to NERC (in its defense, the law inhibits FERC action, but the agency could be much more aggressive in calling attention to the issue), and the DOE seems uninterested. Congress is sporadically concerned. In 2010, the House passed a grid protection bill unanimously, but it died in the Senate after a single senator prevented a committee vote. (The sources do not provide a name.) Representative Trent Franks introduced the SHIELD (Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage) Act, but it has been bogged down in issues of committee jurisdiction. EMP activists are particularly irate with Rep. Fred Upton and Senator Lisa Murkowski, who hold important chairmanships, and who, it is claimed, have blocked action because of industry pressure.
Woolsey suggests a couple of reasons for the torpor. One is that fear of enemy action does not fit the government’s preferred narrative that Bin Laden is dead and terrorists do not present a significant threat. As for the industry, since the deregulation movement took hold, electricity has become a commodity, and commodity industries do not fund research because no company can capture the benefits. Nor can any individual company justify spending on measures that protect the grid as a whole rather than its own piece of it. The explanation leaves one puzzled, though, because joint action should be easy enough to organize if the will existed.
As history so often shows, many warnings that appear clear in retrospect were ambiguous at the time because they were lost in the noise of competing and contradictory information.
Another possibility is that policymakers are continually deluged with threats of disaster, from Y2K to the end of the Mayan Calendar to asteroid impacts. DHS’s set of National Planning Scenarios for use in preparing disaster responses includes a macabre collection of 15 possible biological, nuclear, and chemical disasters; EMP can be dismissed as simply a variation on these.
Besides, how is the industry supposed to prioritize? Physical and cyber attacks are also significant threats, and measures to protect against these are not prophylactic for EMPs. The industry may well fear a continuing stream of regulatory mandates to address each new panic. It may also be that the cost estimates for hardening are too low, and the industry knows it. If the bill for EMP protection were not $2 billion but $20 billion, then the choices become more difficult.
Another reason for inaction is that a couple of decades of exaggeration concerning the threat of climate change have increased skepticism as “settled science” looks more and more dubious. EMPs and climate change can get lumped together, since both involve energy and the atmosphere, and the lay person or congressman just assumes “oh, there they go again.”
Breaking through the cacophony and confusion is hard. As history so often shows, many warnings that appear clear in retrospect were ambiguous at the time because they were lost in the noise of competing and contradictory information. If those charged with leadership on the EMP issue show no alarm, then others will follow their lead.
But if the government is supine, concern is breaking through in the nation at large. More stories are appearing in the media, many of them excellent; see, e.g., a recent Forbes article and a Popular Mechanics piece. National Geographic in 2013 broadcast American Blackout, “the story of a national power failure in the United States caused by a cyber attack.”
A number of distinguished citizens are pursuing the issue, including Woolsey; Gingrich; Forstchen; Peter Vincent Pry, who was on the first EMP Commission; Professor Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado (a 2010 winner of the Van Allen Award for his research on space); Professor Emeritus George Baker of James Madison University; and Ambassador Henry Cooper, director of the Strategic Defense Initiative under President George H. W. Bush. Activist groups have been formed: the Foundation for Resilient Societies; Center for Security Policy; Secure the Grid; EMPact America; High Frontier.
States are growing restive about the federal lassitude. While the grid may be one big machine, it is also possible for a state to en-isle itself to some degree. Maine has passed an EMP protection act and North Carolina is considering one. The cost to North Carolina would be about $10 million, or even less, so it should be a no-brainer.
The populace at large is also showing more sense than its leaders. Put “EMP” into an Amazon book search and stand back lest you be crushed by the avalanche of results. “Prepping” has become big business, and while some of it is based on the fear of political collapse, most stems from fear of the grid going down. The Internet provides a cornucopia of dried food, wood and coal stoves, hand pumps for wells, survival gear, and arms, and detailed discussions of how to prepare for “the zombie apocalypse” and “SHTF situations.” The mainstream media still mocks “preppers,” but between the lines one can see uncertainty about who are the real crazies – those who look at the EMP risk reports and start stocking rations, or those who assume that it cannot be a real problem or the government would be doing something.
However, even if the nation were to commit to action now, the next few years will be very dangerous. While we have frittered the past decade, experts think that Russia and China, and perhaps North Korea and Iran, have taken steps to harden their grids.
While we have frittered the past decade, experts think that Russia and China, and perhaps North Korea and Iran, have taken steps to harden their grids.
This gives them a strategic advantage, and if we now awaken it also puts them in the position of use-it-or-lose-it. If they act now, they may well destroy our capacity to thwart them. If they wait, we will achieve stand-off.
Throughout history, use-it-or-lose-it situations are terrifyingly unstable. One of the great causes of World War I was that Germany felt its position would deteriorate and it needed to act now, and during the Cold War the dangers presented by possible vulnerabilities to first strikes preoccupied nuclear theorists. A nation that feared the loss of its capabilities might well pull the trigger out of fear, or by mistake. The world came close to disaster in 1995, after the Cold War was supposedly over, in the Black Brant scare, when the Russians saw a Norwegian launch of a scientific satellite, feared that it was a pre-emptive US EMP attack, and prepared to retaliate.
The hope is that even if potential adversaries know that US civilian society is vulnerable, our military has been hardening, and an attacker cannot be sure of escaping retaliation. At least, we better hope this is how they think, because otherwise their temptation to use any advantage before they lose it could be overwhelming.
This whole matter is also deeply troubling for what it says about the competence and integrity of the American political class. As a matter of risk analysis, this is a straight-forward issue. It has been a no-brainer for more than a decade. We face a potential mortal threat that can be neutralized for a minor amount of money, and our decision processes have become so sclerotic that we are unable to deal with the threat, and in the course of not dealing with it we have put ourselves in a terrible strategic posture.
While we are ignoring this real danger, we are spending billions on fraudulent green energy schemes and handouts to politically favored groups. The Transportation Security Administration has an annual budget of $7.5 billion to keep old ladies from carrying nail files onto airplanes, and nothing to keep a terrorist from laying hands on a weather balloon.
Despite the problem of the noise in the system, and the addition of physical and cyber attacks to the roster of concerns, this is shoddy performance.
Good data on the 2012 near-miss was captured by spacecraft, and it would have been bigger than Carrington. Says eminent professor Daniel Baker, “Our advanced technological society was very fortunate, indeed, that the 23 July solar storm did not occur just a week or so earlier . . . We believe that the 23 July 2012 solar storm was a shot across the bow for policy makers and space weather professionals.”
But he also said “My space weather colleagues believe that until we have an event that slams Earth and causes complete mayhem, policymakers are not going to pay attention.”
He may well be right, but if the slam happens, it may be too late.
James V. DeLong is a graduate of Harvard Law School who lives in Washington, D.C., and Quicksburg, VA. He is the author of Ending ‘Big SIS’ (The Special Interest State) & Renewing the American Republic.