Terror Warning: Grid Down

by CYNTHIA E AYERS July 27, 2012

Could the reluctance to secure our nation's critical electric infrastructure be considered an act of terrorism?  Or might it possibly be an act of providing material support for terrorism?  If so, who would the terrorists be? 

Which is the greater threat to America's national security-coordinated terrorist acts on major cities, such as the 9/11 attacks, or the deliberate inaction of corporate executives to secure our nation's electric grid?  Consider the consequences:  nearly three thousand people died in the 9/11 attacks; but a widespread and prolonged electric grid collapse, caused by a naturally-occurring coronal mass ejections (CMEs) or nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, could result in the deaths of over two-thirds of the population-200 million Americans.  Given these dire statistics should those in positions of authority over the security and reliability of the bulk power system be held accountable for lack of action before a "grid-down" scenario becomes a reality?  

We live in a terrifying world-and it's getting more so by the day.   If you listen carefully to the news, you'll hear about localized natural disasters, failing global economy, the specter of creeping socialism, and potential violence from "domestic extremists," as well as from a vague assortment of international terrorists.  If you go beyond the mainstream news, you'll find that natural disasters can, indeed be continental-wide (and possibly global).  You'll find that our economic woes-beginning with the 2008 "crash"-have been manipulated by foreign interests and "financial terrorists."  You'll realize that "creeping Shari'a" is on par with, if not more dangerous than creeping socialism.  And you may discover that the real threats to national and homeland security are not from American "liberty loving" patriots who are prudently preparing for emergencies, but from an Iranian theocratic regime driven by an apocalyptic agenda (plus its allies) and a "global jihad movement" intent on establishing global Islam.  You may also learn that our adversaries know exactly what our vulnerabilities are.  They know precisely how to take us down, instantaneously and long-term.  They know how to take down the nervous system of our country-the electric grid.   

Many find revelations such as these too disturbing to contemplate.  Public reactions that I have been confronted with include "this is too complicated;"  "I can't do anything about these things, so I don't want to know;" "I have too many things to worry about now," "this is overblown rhetoric," and "you must be crazy."  For my attempts to warn the public, I have been called names that can't be printed in this venue (mostly within politically-biased forums).  Other noteworthy professionals-friends and associates in this endeavor-have become targets for character assassination (and worse).  It has become neither politically correct, nor politically efficacious to discuss the real nature of threat under current socially-enforced restrictions. Thus, complexities are often ignored and linkages are not exposed to audiences beyond the few who dare to think along broader, more strategic lines.  As a result, few are warned and the general public remains largely unaware, allowing for the continuity of complacency while solutions and/or alternatives may indeed exist-including "fixes" for vulnerabilities within our highly fragile power grid.   

Representatives of the power industry have reluctantly conceded that the power grid may possibly be vulnerable to attacks (high-altitude nuclear, cyber, etc.) and the effects of severe space weather; yet they fail to grasp the necessity for speed in applying cost-effective fixes.  Instead,        industry leaders have managed to interject long-term delays based on the excuse that "more study is needed."  Reports from congressional staffers indicate that messaging from power industry lobbyists consists mainly of one theme-that if a catastrophic event (solar or attack scenario) were to occur, there would be nothing left to "plug in" to the grid anyway, so why bother to spend the money to protect it, let alone risk a public outcry by creating additional regulations? This kind of thinking is not only wrong, it is defeatist and dangerous.  

Nearly all small-scale electrical/electronic equipment can survive severe space weather events.  Even under devastating conditions of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) cause by a high-altitude nuclear explosion, some vital electronics will be protected, either intentionally (e.g. those preplaced in Faraday cages) or unintentionally (e.g. cars in sufficiently protected underground garages).   Some items can be fixed with spares.  Some equipment won't be affected (such as older, pre-computer ignition automobiles and most diesel-electric locomotives).  

Unfortunately, however, the huge transformers that make up the core of the electric grid are unique, costly, and are subject to damage from both EMP events and major solar storms (large-scale CMEs), as well as from the cumulative effects of multiple smaller geomagnetic disturbances that have occurred over time.  Many transformers are quite old, have been affected by harmful harmonics with past CMEs, and are operating at the end of their life-cycle; thus they remain highly vulnerable.  At this point in time, a large, geographically widespread grid-down scenario lasting longer than 7 days virtually guarantees multiple Chernobyl/Fukushima-like disasters.  With nuclear power plants and their associated spent fuel rod pools concentrated mainly in the eastern half of the United States (100 out of 104), many people will become radiation victims if the grid isn't protected.  What will be left to "plug in" to the grid?  Hopefully something that can be used to cool the spent fuel rods on a very long-term basis.  

Bottom line--the more components (electric grid, public service, and personal electronics) that are protected and/or saved, the faster the country can recover, and the more lives will be spared in the aftermath of a catastrophic collapse of the critical electric infrastructure.   Considering the possibility of four to ten years without electric power, the loss of over two-thirds of our country's population within the first year, and the probable loss of our sovereignty as a nation, I would think that the people of the United States deserve more than lame excuses (e.g. the citing of a need for "more data") and defeatist attitudes-especially coming from the private organization tasked with protecting the bulk power system-the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC).   The data is already overwhelming.  Many government-sponsored scientific studies have reported the risks of doing nothing-the time to prepare and protect the grid is now.   

So, what is the greater threat to our nation? Is the security of our country being held hostage to an agenda set by corporate executives who are reticent to consider "worst case" events?  Or is there something more sinister going on?  Regardless of the reasons or motives, once the grid has collapsed, we are all "sitting ducks" for social unrest, starvation, and pre-positioned terror cells known to exist across the nation.  At that point, one could be forgiven for wondering what "terrorist" organization compromised our safety-whether the intention was profit, political efficacy, or our ultimate destruction.  

Equating the threat from recalcitrant electric utility executives to the threat of international terrorism may seem harsh.  The EMP threat, after all, is more appropriately associated with North Korea, Russia, China, Iran and terrorist proxies.  And the effects of severe space weather can hardly be attributed to terrorism.  But the NERC is currently certified as the nation's Electric Reliability Organization (ERO).  The need for electric grid defense becomes more critical by the day; and if the NERC has done all they are going to do, near term, to protect the grid, perhaps it's time to consider alternative organizations for industry representation and leadership.  Perhaps it's time to call for decertification of the NERC.   

Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Cynthia E. Ayers is currently Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. Prior to accepting the Task Force position, she served as Vice President of EMPact Amercia, having retired from the National Security Agency after over 38 years of federal service-a period that included 8 years at the U.S. Army War College's Center for Strategic Leadership.


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