It's an unsettling scenario: An attack on the U.S. homeland in the form of an electromagnetic pulse — a massive blast from a high altitude (most likely nuclear) weapon intended to cripple our electrical control system infrastructures and the electronic devices we depend on. In this digital age, where electronic technology is prevalent in nearly all aspects of our daily lives, it's a threat that must be monitored closely — by government and industry leaders alike. As frightening as this doomsday scenario sounds, most experts consider it a low-likelihood event where consequences can vary significantly depending on how such a weapon is delivered.
As with any emerging threat, it's unknown how an attack of this magnitude would be executed and what effect it would have on society. Our country's infrastructure faces threats equal to, or greater than, an EMP attack on a daily basis. Most recently, we were warned about the possibility of "the really big one" as The New Yorker described an earthquake that could destroy the Pacific Northwest. Geologists also warn about the possibility that the massive volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park will erupt and destroy a large part of the continental U.S.
These examples aren't mentioned to minimize the seriousness of an EMP attack, but rather to provide context for how we should manage risk for events that while plausible, are incredibly rare or unlikely. While some might consider an EMP attack the ultimate "doomsday scenario" for America, it is important not to simply focus on alarmist conjecture, but rather what needs to be done to better understand this threat, how industry is already mitigating the risks of an EMP attack and where further investments can best be applied.
Often called the largest machine in the world, the North American electric grid is massive. Its sheer scale makes it impossible to fully protect. This vulnerability doesn't leave us defenseless, however; it does just the opposite. Due to its distributed nature and extensive network, the grid is phenomenally resilient, with the ability to shift power distribution at any time of day and seal off potential areas of concern or damage. Likewise, working across the power industry, grid owners and operators have agreements in place to immediately deploy needed personnel and resources, identify and deliver spare equipment, including large transformers, and initiate recovery efforts to restore power quickly.
When considering risk mitigation for extraordinary scenarios, public and private partnerships play a critical role. The electric sector recognizes that information sharing between utilities and the government is the foundation for preparedness. Just one example is the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, which coordinates sector-wide policy activities to improve the reliability of physical and cyber infrastructure. This CEO-led group meets regularly with senior government officials to improve coordination, ensure roles and responsibilities are defined, and prepare for threats of all kinds. Given the unique nature of an EMP, potential weapons involved, the potential societal impact, and national security implications, the federal government has a responsibility to deter such attacks through intelligence gathering and military deterrence. The government also must play a lead role in determining our nation's preparedness and response plans related to this threat, share its expertise in EMP protection options, and continue to forge deeper relationships with the utility industry to enhance the grid's resilience.
Utilities and their regulators also are constantly reviewing ways to strengthen the nation's electrical infrastructure. Not to be confused with EMPs, the electric sector is working with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to enhance reliability as it relates to geomagnetic disturbances. GMDs, or naturally occurring solar storms, also can impact the electric grid. NERC and FERC have developed standards requiring emergency procedures and preparedness strategies that would mitigate the impacts of a 100-year GMD event. These two events, EMP and GMD, are often incorrectly conflated and while similar, are very different. EMP produces types of destructive energy pulses significantly more damaging than those created by GMD, but mitigation measures applied to one can enhance protection against the other.
The electric sector is conducting research to identify best practices for mitigation around both EMP and GMD, including hardware solutions to protect equipment. So, before engaging in political efforts that call for the immediate hardening of all 55,000 substations across North America, we need a more comprehensive technical understanding of the risk and the costs of protection, not to mention a broader appreciation of the unintended consequences. The electric sector is working with the Departments of Energy and Homeland Security, NERC, FERC, the Electric Power Research Institute, the National Labs, and other entities to model and understand what it takes to effectively mitigate against and recover from a GMD or EMP event.
Although the grid can never be 100 percent secured from all potential dangers, the industry is managing the EMP threat in tangible and proportionate ways. With every incident, including GMD and large storms, the industry is learning — and the grid is getting better-equipped to handle evolving threats. This knowledge creates a compounding effect of lessons learned that ultimately help the sector meet challenges presented by many threats, including EMPs.
There is little question we must be diligent in protecting our critical infrastructure, but undue panic around an EMP attack — or any other extraordinary scenario — is not the recipe for thoughtful and effective security.
Mark Weatherford is a senior advisor at The Chertoff Group, a security and risk management advisory firm. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.