Sounding The Alarm On The Country's Vulnerability To An EMP
In the past here at Peak Prosperity, we’ve written extensively on the threat posed by a sustained loss of electrical grid power. More specifically, we've warned that the most damaging threat to our grid would come from either a manmade or natural electromagnetic pulse (EMP).
A good friend of mine, Jen Bawden, is currently sitting on a committee of notable political, security and defense experts -- which includes past and present members of Congress, ambassadors, CIA directors, and others -- who are equally concerned about this same threat and have recently sent a letter to Obama pleading for action to protect the US grid.
Before we get to that letter, here’s a snippet from what we wrote on the matter roughly a year ago:
We talk a lot about Peak Cheap Oil as the Achilles' heel of the exponential monetary model, but the real threat to the quality of our daily lives, if not our lives themselves, would be a sustained loss of electrical power. Anything over a week without power for any modern nation would be a serious problem. A month would lead to chaos and many deaths.
When the power goes out, everything just stops. For residential users, even a few hours begins to intrude heavily as melting freezers, dying cell phones, and the awkward realization that we don't remember how to play board games nudge us out of our comfort zone.
However, those are just small inconveniences.
For industrial and other heavy users, the impact of even a relatively short outage can be expensive or even ghastly. Hospitals and people on life-assisting machinery are especially vulnerable. Without power, aluminum smelters face the prospect of the molten ore solidifying in the channels from which it must be laboriously removed before operations can be restarted.
Many types of nuclear power plants have to switch to back-up diesel generators to keep the cooling pumps running. And if those stop for any reason (like they run out of fuel), well, Fukushima gave us a sense of how bad things can get.
And of course banking stops, ATMs are useless, and gas stations cannot pump gas. Just ask the people of New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
A blackout of a few hours results in an inconvenience for everyone and something to talk about.
But one more than a day or two long? Things begin to get a bit tense; especially in cities, and doubly so if it happens in the hot mid-summer months.
Anything over a week and we start facing real, life-threatening issues. National Geographic ran a special presentation, American Blackout, in October 2013 -- it presented a very good progression covering exactly what a timeline of serious grid disruption would look and feel like. I recommend the program for those interested.
We're exploring this risk because there are a number of developments that could knock out the power grid for a week or more. They include a coronal mass ejection (CME), a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) device, a cascading grid failure, and malicious hacking or electronic attacks.
Others Are Waking Up To The Danger
Recently, we've been contacted by a well-connected group of powerful people who have formed a commission to study the matter, and have recently made a public and urgent appeal in an open letter to President Obama to take this threat seriously.
This letter was sent to the President over the Memorial Day weekend. It begins (emphasis mine):
Dear Mr. President,
We need your personal intervention to provide for the protection of the American people against an existential threat posed by natural and manmade electromagnetic pulse (EMP). The consequent failure of critical infrastructure that sustain our lives is a major national security threat and would be catastrophic to our people and our nation.
The national Intelligence Council, which speaks for the entire U.S. Intelligence Community, published in its 2012 unclassified Global Trends 2030 report that an EMP is one of only eight Black Swan events that could change the course of global civilization by or before 2030. No official study denies the view that an EMP is a potentially catastrophic societal threat that needs to be addressed urgently. America is not prepared to be without water, electricity, telephones, computer networks, heating, air conditioning, transportation (cars, subways, buses, airplanes), and banking.
All the benefits of our just-in-time economy would come to a deadly halt, including the production of petroleum products, clothing, groceries and medicine. Think about cities without electricity to pump water to their residents.
Given the deadly drama that would accompany a such major and sustained grid-down event, you’d think that the US would be spending lots of money to safeguard against one happening. But you’d be wrong.
A bit further in the letter they warn about the vulnerability of nuclear reactors, a risk that causes me a lot of personal concern:
We urge you immediately to issue a Presidential Study Directive (PSD) directing your National Security Advisor to lead a focused interagency effort to provide, in connection with your current budget execution activities and future budget requests, a specific program to address this natural and manmade threat. In particular, this PSD should direct that hardening technology, well known in the Department of Defense, be exploited by all agencies with responsibility for maintaining the electric power grid. It is imperative that plans are immediately implemented to protect America’s at least 100 nuclear reactors and their co-located spent fuel storage facilities from an EMP.
As Fukushima taught the world, if nuclear plants lose grid power, they rely on diesel generators to keep the cooling water circulating. Lacking grid power, they can keep everything working for as long as the diesel generators run. Of course, in a grid-down event nothing works, including refineries and the ability to pump and move refined fuel. After the diesel runs out (assuming the generators themselves were not completely ruined by the EMP), the nuke plants will experience various forms of distress as cooling systems are compromised, up to and including complete meltdowns as a possibility.
Nature Can Play This Game, Too
As a reminder, an EMP can also come from a natural cause such as a coronal mass ejection from our sun -- something we’ve covered in detail here in repeated interviews with NASA scientist Lika Guhathakurta (here and here) as well as in numerous reports centered on the electrical grid and/or warfare:
A coronal mass ejection from the Sun can generate a natural EMP with catastrophic consequences. A geomagnetic super-storm in 1859 called the Carrington Event caused worldwide damage and fires in telegraph stations and other primitive electronics, which at the time were not necessary for societal survival. In contrast, today a Carrington-class geomagnetic super-storm-expected every century or so-could collapse electric grids and destroy critical infrastructure everywhere on Earth.
We know it will happen; we just don’t know when, but we know humanity can’t risk being unprepared. In July 2012, we missed a repeat by only a few days when a major solar emission passed through the Earth’s orbit just after planet Earth passed. NASA recently warned that the likelihood of such a geomagnetic super-storm is 12 percent per decade; so it is virtually certain that a natural EMP catastrophe shall occur within our lifetime or that of our children.
We covered the July 2012 event here at PeakProsperity.com because it was a very narrow miss for Earth. Had it instead hit, I seriously doubt I would be typing this or that you’d be reading it. Instead, more likely, we’d be writing letters by candlelight (assuming someone had a pony available to deliver them).
Now, a 12% per decade chance of a natural EMP occuring per is a pretty high risk. Statistically, it translates into a pretty safe bet that sooner or later on is going to strike. Despite all our advanced technology, we’ll only have, at best, a couple of days advance warning. And that’s assuming that the government decides to tell us, risking a mass panic before the CME arrives.
EMP As A Tool Of War
But the bigger risk, in my mind, is that a military confrontation induces one (or several) players to use an EMP as a means of warfare. With the US poking the Russian bear, and now considering military options to confront China over the islands they are building in the South China Sea, it's not out-of-the-question that one of these world powers could consider using an EMP as a means of retaliation..
The letter to Obama continues:
As we have known for over a half-century from actual test data, even more damaging EMP effects would be produced by any nuclear weapon exploded a hundred miles or so above the United States, possibly disabling everything that depends on electronics for control or operations within a line of sight from the explosion.
Electricity networks could be shut down indefinitely until major repairs could be made, and this could take months, even years. Cascading failures from even a lower altitude nuclear burst over the northeastern U.S. could indefinitely shut down the electric grid that produces three quarters of the U.S. electric power. Computers would be incapacitated. Supply chains would shut down. Imagine Hurricane Sandy affecting a much larger area without the immediate physical damage but also without any hope for relief supplies.
Russia and China have already developed nuclear EMP weapons and many believe others possess EMP weapons including North Korea and soon Iran - and likely their terrorist surrogates. For example, they could launch nuclear-armed short or medium range missiles from near our coasts, possibly hiding the actual sponsor from retaliation. North Korea and Iran have tested their missiles in ways that can execute EMP attacks from ships or from satellites that approach the U.S. from the couth where our ballistic missile warning systems are minimal.
A nuclear EMP device is thought to have the potential to completely ruin an unhardened electrical grid for as long as it takes to repair/replace all the ruined electrical items affected. This is especially concerning in the case of large scale transformers, which are specially made in just a few places with very low manufacturing throughput capacity that could take a year or more (and that’s assuming the plants are still up and running after the attack).
There is one quibble I have with the letter: I'm not at all concerned about Iran at this stage. Iran has never physically threatened the US nor funded any terrorists that have directly attacked the US like, say, Saudi Arabia. Perhaps we should be more concerned about the Saudis:
Saudis ‘to get nuclear weapons’
May 17, 2015
SAUDI ARABIA has taken the “strategic decision” to acquire “off-the-shelf” atomic weapons from Pakistan, risking a new arms race in the Middle East, according to senior American officials.
The move by the Gulf kingdom, which has financed much of Islamabad’s nuclear programme over the past three decades, comes amid growing anger among Sunni Arab states over a deal backed by President Barack Obama, which they fear could allow their arch foe, Shi’ite Iran, to develop a nuclear bomb.
So, yes, I’d personally be more concerned about a volatile and increasingly unstable Saudi Arabia having a few nukes in their hot little hands than I would Iran. But that's just me. And it's a small point relative to the main message of the letter.
I do agree, though, that the US has plenty of enemies. And its relationships with major powers Russia and China are clearly deteriorating and becoming more hostile:
China state paper warns of war over South China Sea unless U.S. backs down
May 21, 2015
A Chinese state-owned newspaper said on Monday that "war is inevitable" between China and the United States over the South China Sea unless Washington stops demanding Beijing halt the building of artificial islands in the disputed waterway.
The Global Times, an influential nationalist tabloid owned by the ruling Communist Party's official newspaper the People's Daily, said in an editorial that China was determined to finish its construction work, calling it the country's "most important bottom line".
It’s a far leap from a general risk of ‘war’ to panicking about a nuclear EMP device being detonated on our soil, but reasonable and prudent individuals cannot entirely discount the possibility. I agree that our government should have plans in place for such a shock, and a program to firm US national weaknesses in advance.
As long as I'm making demands, it would also be my wish that the US practice more diplomacy and issued fewer blustery ‘my way or the highway’ ultimatums to major nuclear superpowers. Sadly the current State Department seems to be fully occupied by extremely hawkish Neocons who have a differnet point of view.
China has a very strong interest in the South China Sea (where lots of oil is thought to be found, by the way) and they are very much unlikely to back down to US demands or even direct military confrontation. Both national pride and critical resources are at stake (things that the US should understand quite well).
I'm glad that there is a group of concerned and well-connected individuals that are seeking both to raise awareness at the top of government and to encourage more direct action to insulate our electrical grid from the impact of an EMP. We applaud those efforts.
But as with nearly every major societal risk we face, we don't recommend pinning your hopes on the government to ride to the rescue. Instead, we’ve been carefully and consistently raising awareness among our readers to the threat posed by a loss of grid power (especially due to an EMP event, because the duration of the outage in that case is likely to be long).
It turns out there are plenty of steps you can take to insulate yourself from the worst effects of a loss of power. We’ve covered everything from building your own Faraday cages, to installing solar and other electricity-generating systems that might themselves withstand an EMP or other acts of warfare and still function in providing essential power during dark times.
In Part 2: Reducing Your Risk To A Grid-Down Event, we reveal the vulnerabilities mostly likely to cause prolonged outages of the national power grid: cyber attacks. The current system in the US has a disconcerting number of failure points that can -- and are, the data shows -- being targeted by malicious agents.
And more importantly, we lay out the specific steps concerned individuals should take at the home level to have backup support and protection should the grid go down. The cost of such preparation is very low compared to the huge magnitude of this low-probability, but highly disruptive, threat.