EMP attack on power grid could take down DOD systems, experts warn

A worst-case scenario could take out parts of the grid for years, according to some studies, and although equipment exists that can prevent such damage, Congress and the power industry cannot agree on action.

Defense systems that depend on the commercial electric grid are vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse attacks and solar storms that could seriously damage the nation’s infrastructure, experts from the Homeland Security and Defense departments told a House Homeland Security subcommittee.

The likelihood and the effects of such an event have been the subject of debate, and legislation that would require defenses against them is stalled in the House.

Major military weapons systems and nuclear assets are hardened against EMP events, but “DOD is heavily dependent on the commercial electric grid,” Michael Aimone, director of DOD Business Enterprise Integration, told the subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies.


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Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who testified as a witness at the Sept. 12 hearing, said Russia and several other countries are developing an offensive EMP capability, but there is little protection against such attacks on the commercial grid. He called for installing hardware protection for the most critical elements.

”The major vulnerability we have right now is damage to our major transformers,” which could put parts of the national grid out of operation for years, Franks said. Operational procedures cannot provide timely response, he added, but equipment called neutral phase blockers could provide cost-effective and automatic protection from surges that could cause damage.

Current regulations do not require this protection, however, and industry has been slow to adopt it, although Chris Beck, president of the Electric Infrastructure Security Council, said there are no significant technical or financial barriers to deploying it.

Electromagnetic pulse is an electrical disruption that can be caused by high-altitude nuclear explosions or naturally by solar activities such as flares. Studies by the congressionally established EMP Commission and by Oak Ridge National Laboratory have concluded that in a worst-case scenario a serious event could leave large portions of the nation’s power grid out of service for four to 10 years by causing physical damage to transformers and other equipment. Communications systems and individual electrical devices also could be at risk.

The likelihood of such an event has been questioned, however. The North American Electric Reliability Corp., which is charged with creating mandatory reliability standards for the U.S. bulk power distribution industry, believes it is more likely that there would be little physical damage and resulting problems would last only days.

Beck blamed the lack of preparedness on industry inertia and lack of awareness.

Current processes for creating industry standards are inadequate to address such threats to national security, said Joseph McClelland, director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Electric Reliability. NERC writes the standards, and FERC can only approve or reject them.

“The procedures used by NERC are appropriate for developing and approving routine reliability standards,” McClelland said. “However, it can be an impediment when measures or actions need to be taken to address threats to national security quickly and in a manner that protects against the disclosure of security-sensitive information.”

The SHIELD Act (H.R. 668), introduced last year by Franks, would enable FERC to establish reliability standards for the bulk power system to protect against EMP attacks. No action has been taken on the bill.

DOD currently relies on on-site and mobile back-up generators to protect against disruptions from outages in the commercial grid, and also is developing next-generation microgrids to enable local generation and storage of power on bases.

This could not only protect against outages but enable better local energy supplies and the balancing of supply and demand. DOD's Aimone said microgrid demonstration projects currently are under way at 29 Palms Marine Corps base in California and at Fort Bliss, Texas.

 

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