WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
With more countries around the world, such as Russia and North Korea rattling their nuclear arsenals, the US is revitalising its efforts to protect the US energy and communications networks from attack, specifically from the effect of electromagnetic pulses.
An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack could wreak real havoc on the electrical system that powers our lives. It’s something defense experts have been worrying about for years, given the vulnerable state of America’s grid. Now, one Texas based think tank says its home state is the perfect place to test how to defend the country’s infrastructure from such an attack.
Simply put, an EMP is a strong pulse of electromagnetic energy with the power to disable or even destroy electronics over a wide geographic area. Such an effect could come from high altitude detonation from a nuclear missile, such as one that could be launched from Russia’s latest nuclear-capable autonomous drone submarine or from natural disturbances caused by solar storms – which, by the way are becoming more pronounced.
Why Texas? Its historically independent nature aside, Texas is the world’s 10th largest economy by GDP and is home to 11 percent of the US military population. The state is also the nation’s largest energy producer. But the key, according to the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), is Texas’ state controlled electrical grid.
The US national grid consists of three systems. One serves the east half of the country, the second serves the western half. But the Lone Star State has it own independent grid, and the NCPA says this fact makes Texas well-positioned to implement EMP defenses. However, it also makes the state an attractive target.
The electric power industry has been aware of the potential threat of EMPs, but until recently, no detailed research has been conducted about how to counter its possible threats. Last year the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) an industry non-profit, began a three year EMP research program, which was welcome news to David Grantham, author of the NCPA’s report on the Texas grid and national security.
How do you even harden an electric grid against such an attack? According to the EPRI, utilities are deploying tactics that include shielding control rooms with Faraday cages, using new grounded metallic relay houses, grounding and shielding power supply and communications cables, installing robust surge protectors-arresters, increasing use of fiber optic cables for communication, and neutral blockers for transformers.
So there are lots of tools in the toolbox for EMP mitigation, but the electric power industry doesn’t want to pay the costly price until they know more about the actual risks. The Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade association, echoes similar caution.
It says that “electric utilities plan for a number of threats to the grid” and that “they identify the likelihood and consequence of each threat to understand their security priorities.” For example, it’s far more likely for electric infrastructure to be attacked through a computer rather than a ballistic weapon.
For now, EMPs rank low on the industry’s list of threats. But those priorities could shift as more countries develop EMP weapons. Right now, the US Air Force Research Laboratory is developing its own tactical EMP weapons, called CHAMP. And when there is one weapon in the works, more usually follow.
Regardless of how remote the possibilities, Texas’ electric grid could become a model for infrastructure protection in this new and growing piece of technological warfare.
“I tend to fall on the side which views [EMP] as a remote possibility,” Grantham says, “but it remains a possibility… having worked in counterintelligence in the Air Force for several years, I think hardening the grid is well worth the investment.”