Saturday, August 19, 2017

America's Frail Grid Defense

The United States tested a hydrogen bomb 250 miles above Earth in 1962, creating a blue-lit sky as particles collided with nitrogen atoms. The atmospheric detonation created a powerful electromagnetic pulse that shut off streetlights and phone lines in Hawaii. Officials today warn that a U.S. enemy like North Korea could use an EMP to badly damage the U.S. grid. (Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory/Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
Mother Nature's first attempt to explore the Earth's fledgling electrical system came Sept. 1, 1859.  It was a two-day solar storm that aimed rogue pulses of electrical energy — later called geomagnetic disturbances (GMD) — at the planet, where they hitchhiked on telegraph lines that acted as giant antennas.  Many were knocked out, but a few lines astonished their operators by sending messages without any power.

The two-day storm is known as the Carrington Event after Richard Carrington, the British astronomer who identified the cause.  The display of power was unusual.  The northern lights, the fireworks resulting from electrons hitting the Earth's upper atmosphere, appeared as far south as New Orleans.
The first major U.S. military attempt to explore electrical effects in the upper atmosphere was a more brutal, secretive and unsettling affair.  It came a century later, on July 9, 1962, with a hydrogen bomb test called Starfish Prime.  The 1.4-megaton warhead detonated at 250 miles over the mid-Pacific, creating an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) — somewhat similar to GMD, but more powerful and immediate.  It blew out streetlights and shut down telephone systems in Hawaii, 898 miles away.
But the results of Starfish hinted at the answer to a more profound strategic question:  If an EMP explosion in the upper atmosphere caused serious, lasting damage to an adversary's electricity grid and its communication systems, its economy would be in tatters.  Would there be any need for further nuclear strikes?
In 2001 Congress appointed an investigative panel, the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, and in 2003 it held several meetings between Russian scientists and U.S. experts on the subject.  The commission learned that the Russian tests were held over the deserts of Kazakhstan, where EMP bursts from nuclear weapons destroyed above-ground, long-distance power lines; burned through insulators; and even disabled a buried communication line over 400 miles away from the blast.

According to one commission report, by 1968 the Soviets had developed a way to launch an EMP attack over the United States using a "fractional orbital bombardment system" (FOBS).  It was designed to evade the main U.S. detection systems — banks of radars watching for missile and bomber launches coming over the North Pole — by being carried in a satellite that would orbit over the United States from the South Pole.  Soviet experts told the commission that the system was dismantled in 1983.

Two former cold warriors helped Congress fill in the gaps.  Henry Cooper, a nuclear weapons expert, former head of the Strategic Defense Initiative under President Reagan and a former Pentagon official under President George H.W. Bush, worked closely with the commission, which was terminated by Congress in 2008 but was restarted in 2015.  He told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May that "very senior Russian generals" and other former Soviet weapons experts told the commission in 2004 that "EMP knowledge had been transferred to North Korea."

The possibility that North Korea has developed such a weapon, he suggested, might explain why its underground nuclear tests have had low yields.  Weapons designed to enhance EMP effects don't necessarily need high blast power.

"I consider that we are living in the most dangerous period of my lifetime for a number of reasons, but the vulnerability of our national electric power grid is among the most important ones," Cooper, 80, told the committee.

EMP and the classic plot twist
In prepared remarks in July 2015, R. James Woolsey, a former U.S. arms control negotiator and head of the CIA under President Clinton, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that "North Korea and Iran have both orbited satellites at altitudes that, if the satellites were nuclear warheads, would place an EMP field over all 48 contiguous United States."

"The iconic EMP attack detonates a single warhead about 300 kilometers [186 miles] high over the center of the U.S.," Woolsey testified, asserting that the scenario poses "an existential threat that would have catastrophic consequences for our society."  Yet many people still think "that EMP is science fiction," he complained.

Indeed, that may still be the case.  While more members of Congress, at least 13 foreign nations, U.S. scientists and some businesses are now taking fresh, serious looks at the potential threat, EMP quickly became a classic plot staple on American movie screens during the 1980s.  There, the threats started with two James Bond films, followed in later decades by more EMP adventures starring Superman, Batman, and even Godzilla.
What was troubling to younger scientists during this fictional onslaught was that as each decade passed, the U.S. economy was becoming more dependent on digital electronics, computers, cellphones, satellite-based communications, and weather and GPS navigational systems that have rapidly accelerated the nation's vulnerability to both hostile EMP attacks and solar storms.

'People should know more about this'
The two phenomena, GMD and EMP, have some similarities.  However, EMP attacks are regarded as more dangerous because they come in three phases.  The first phase, called E1, strikes with no warning time and can damage control systems that are often left intact by the weaker start of a solar storm.  The full EMP attack can be carried out in 20 minutes.  The most harmful part of a solar storm, called the coronal mass ejection, can sometimes take two days before its clouds of charged particles and twisted magnetic fields can strike the Earth.

Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, is familiar with the concerns about EMP and knows that the Defense Department has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and several years hardening its communication and electrical systems to protect against it.  His main worry is that the nation's three electric power grids remain unprotected and that a solar storm could be almost as devastating to them as a military attack.  "People should know more about this," he said during a recent interview.
The result was a 144-page study in 2008 called "Severe Space Weather Events," by the National Academy of Sciences, written by a committee headed by Baker.  It concluded that "electric power grids, a national critical infrastructure, continue to become more vulnerable from geomagnetic storms" and pointed to the prospect of long-term blackouts and trillions of dollars of damage, an economic jolt that would make Hurricane Katrina's costs in the $125 billion range seem trivial.
It was a warning that was finally heeded by the White House after decades of confusion, fears, much creative science fiction, international tensions, and some scary near misses.  On Oct. 13 last year, President Obama signed an executive order, the National Space Weather Action Plan, setting a timetable for government agencies to deal with a large but still poorly understood GMD threat that the president said "could disable large portions of the electrical power grid, resulting in cascading failures that would affect key services such as water supply, health care, and transportation."

Three months later, Obama was gone.  According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Australia, Finland, Germany, Israel, Japan, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Sweden, and the United Kingdom are among nations that are taking steps to harden their power grids against the twin threats of EMP and GMD.  Whether the United States will join them remains a work in progress.

Read more at America's Frail Defense Against a Nuclear-Tipped Threat

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