A new federal audit is raising significant questions about how the government would respond if the electric grid of 24,000 substations and 430,000 miles of transmission cable is disabled by a nuclear attack or solar flare.
The Government Accountability Office, in an audit started in 2014, found that despite congressional and industry concerns of a grid melt down caused by an electromagnetic pulse hit from a nuclear attack or a geomagnetic disturbance from a solar flare like the near hit earth in July 2012, nobody has been put in charge of responding in a disaster.
While the government is aware of the issue, the GAO said, "industry representatives and other federal officials told us it is not clear who within Department of Homeland Security is responsible for addressing electromagnetic risks."
Just as importantly, GAO said that the government hasn't determined which electric assets are the most important to protect or restore after an attack.
Part of the problem found in the audit is the lower risk the government puts on space weather or EMP attacks on the grid. The government gives a higher priority to terrorism and cyber attacks.
But critics of government inaction note that solar flares are extremely concerning and have hit Canada and threatened to melt down part of the U.S. system in 2012. What's more, they have long suggested that U.S. foes like Iran and North Korea have been eyeing an atmospheric nuclear explosion over the United States that could kill electricity to half the nation.
Most of the electric system in the United States is privately owned. The GAO found that the federal government has provided rules and guidelines in protecting the grid, but that little has been done to physically make the adjustments.
The GAO report said that when presented with their findings, the government promised to begin working on an action plan to assign an agency in charge.
It concluded: "Given the foundational importance of electrical power to support other critical infrastructure sectors such as communications and transportation, not securing the electric grid from electromagnetic events could result in the loss of electrical services essential to maintaining our national economy and security."
And, it added, "Given the potentially significant impacts that an EMP attack would have on the electric grid and the potential cost of additional protective measures to mitigate against electromagnetic impacts, federal entities could better coordinate to identify and implement key EMP risk management activities."
Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org