1. Opinion

Column: We need a plan to protect the grid from electromagnetic pulse disturbances

Published Jun. 8, 2017

The debate surrounding the extent to which America is vulnerable to both man-made or naturally occurring electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and natural geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) has become superheated. To some, the dangers these phenomena pose are believed to be existential, while others portray EMP defense advocates as mad and believe its dangers unfounded or debatable.

However, Duke Energy Corp. recently became an advocate for EMP/GMD defense by releasing its plan to link multiple power stations in an effort to create resiliency for its operations and customers.

What is the root of the debate? The answer, as with many emerging national security issues, is nuanced and complex.

EMP is simply an invisible wave or pulse of highly charged electrons. There are several kinds of EMP pulses, but only two primary sources — man-made (caused by a low yield nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere) and natural (caused by solar winds interacting with Earth's magnetic field). Both are real and well understood within the nuclear, scientific and engineering communities. No debate should exist with the hazard of such a catastrophic scenario literally hanging over our heads.

The debate is fueled by two key issues: (1) How likely is an EMP/GMD event? (2) How much cost and loss of life would result of a failure to prepare the national infrastructure to withstand an impact?

Understanding the urgency of answering these two questions, Congress commissioned a committee of experts, all unpaid, to research the issue of a nuclear EMP. It began in 2004, with the establishment of the Congressional Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack (known as the Congressional EMP Commission).

The research, headed by leading American scientists including William Graham, George Baker, Lowell Wood, Peter Pry and other distinguished leaders in the field, arrived at an astonishing conclusion, that "at some point the degradation of infrastructure (by EMP) could have irreversible effects on the country's ability to support its population." The EMP Commission estimated the fiscal cost of an EMP/GMD could be in the trillions and the number of dead could be up to 90 percent of the U.S. population.

Today, a variety of ill-informed sources such as Popular Science, the Atlantic and other national news articles have misquoted the source of these findings. One often-misquoted source errantly stated that the New York Times best-selling book entitled One Second After was the source of the 90 percent fatality estimate. Nonetheless the information has generated a firestorm. And while the truth can hurt, the reality is in fact much worse.

The ability of an adversary such as North Korea, China, Iran or Russia to loft a nuclear payload skyward over the United States is very real, using a ship, balloon, missile or other means as a platform — creativity will ever remain the ultimate wildcard strategy. Even now there are two North Korean satellites orbiting over America on a routine basis at the perfect altitude to effect a sustained nationwide blackout.

While the potential impact of EMP/GMD on our ability to sustain food, water, sanitation and basics for life are real, these pale in comparison to the human and ecological arising of their impact on nuclear power stations. Without a working power grid, such stations would be unable to cool both the reactor core and the numerous spent fuel rods. This would ultimately cause meltdown, such as occurred at Fukushima.

While many stakeholders are upset by the relentless advocacy to create a national program to mitigate EMP/GMD and its effects on critical infrastructure, the level of risk that we as a society are willing to live with should depend on citizens, not special interests and corporate lobbyists persuading citizens that the cost to protect them is too high.

In 2014, an assessment of the North American grid by Lloyd's of London and Oxford University established that probability of grid impact by a devastating GMD was 12 percent per decade. The study concluded that "while the probability of an extreme storm occurring is relatively low at any given time, it is almost inevitable that one will occur."

Today Duke Energy has joined a growing body of well-known advocates who are asking America's decision makers to take notice of a major vulnerability. The champions of this issue are often misunderstood and scoffed at, but like Duke Energy, they agree this problem is not worth dying for. It's worth fixing.

Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Kenneth Chrosniak, a senior fellow at the non-profit and non-partisan American Leadership & Policy Foundation and a former faculty of strategy at the Army War College, frequently lectures on electromagnetic pulse for the FBI's INFRAgard group. Lt. Col. (Ret.) Brian Sullivan is also a senior fellow at American Leadership and a former FAA special agent with a focus in security and risk program management. David Stuckenberg is a doctoral student in national security at King's College London, chairman of American Leadership and an Air Force officer and strategist. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times, and their opinions are their own.