By Jon Dougherty
Federal officials and energy experts offered their most blunt assessment to date regarding the ongoing vulnerability of the U.S. power grid, telling a Senate committee that solar-generated attacks alone cost $10 billion a year.
In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Operations Committee, the officials noted that the attacks are growing and pose a substantial, long-term risk to a vulnerable power grid.
They warned that a catastrophic failure would cut off electricity to millions of Americans, probably for months at a time, causing untold damage and social chaos, adding that the grid is an easy target for solar, nuclear, and even small arms attacks by terrorists.
“We are still incredibly vulnerable,” Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said after hosting a two-hour roundtable to address poor grid security.
The Washington Examiner noted further:
The potential for a grid meltdown from a nuclear-sparked electromagnetic pulse attack or a solar-triggered geomagnetic disturbance, or GMD, has become a hot topic in Washington, and the Defense Department is already working to protect its own systems.
Johnson compared it to the debate on global warming and said that he wants the same attention on protecting the electric grid. He said that efforts to curb climate change are “just in case” scenarios, and “I think we ought to do something just in case here.”
Recent reports have indicated that Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea have developed nuclear EMP weapons that would target the grid.
That said, the most pressing threat is from the sun, the experts noted, and those ‘attacks’ are getting more numerous and more severe.
“Smaller but more frequent GMDs are estimated to cause an average of $10 billion in damage each year,” noted Justin Kasper, associate professor of space, science, and engineering and the University of Michigan.
Energy experts and Homeland Security officials warned, nonetheless, that the grid remains highly vulnerable to other forms of attack.
“The consequences of a successful nuclear EMP attack using a nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude are potentially severe, and may include long-term damage to significant portions of the nation’s electric grid and communications infrastructure,” said Brian Harrell, the assistant homeland director for infrastructure security.
In October we reported that Russia, China, North Korean, and Iran are prepping for nuclear-sourced electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks from space in any future conflict with the United States that would cripple the Pentagon’s ability to respond while leaving America in the dark, according to a recently declassified report.
“The United States critical national infrastructure faces a present and continuing existential threat from combined-arms warfare, including cyber and manmade electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, and natural EMP from a solar superstorm,” the report from the congressional Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack said.
The report notes that nuclear-sourced EMP attacks used to be a concern during the Cold War as a means of destroying the United States’ ability to launch a nuclear counterstrike.
However, the proliferation of nuclear weapons since then has left some American officials with new worries that EMP attacks are also a modern-day possibility.
“Within the last decade, newly nuclear-armed adversaries, including North Korea, have been developing the ability and threatening to carry out an EMP attack against the U.S.,” the report said.
“Such an attack would give countries that have only a small number of nuclear weapons the ability to cause widespread, long-lasting damage to U.S. critical national infrastructures, to the United States itself as a viable country, and to the survival of a majority of its population,” the report added.
A year earlier, in the fall of 2017, Congress was warned that an EMP attack at the right altitude above the United States could completely destroy all U.S. grids and kill 90 percent of the population within a year, mostly due to social chaos but also sickness and disease.
That said, the experts told Johnson’s roundtable that electric companies around the country are working to ‘harden’ their grids. But the chairman is calling for more urgent action, warning that it is “not if, but when” a catastrophe will occur.
“Let’s at least start doing the low-hanging fruit,” he said. “I’d like to solve this problem now,” he added, offering to push for federal spending that could be recovered with fees.
- Follow Jon Dougherty on Twitter at @JonDougherty10
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