Members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs sat down this week to talk about how to protect us from returning to the Dark Ages in the case of an attack on our electric grid. As things stand now, they say, we are vulnerable to attacks that could leave us without power for 18 months. In the worst-case, an attack would leave 90 percent of the U.S. population dead (!). These are scenarios that were discussed as real possibilities by lawmakers on Wednesday and, intermittently, over the past decade.
Our electric grid—made up of the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and the Texas Interconnected system—brings electricity from providers to consumers. Without it, we would be in chaos. Consider what happened when power went out for several hours across the northeast region of North America back in 2003:
In just three minutes, starting at 4:10 p.m., 21 power plants shut down… The outage stopped trains, elevators and the normal flow of traffic and life. In Michigan, water supplies were affected because water is distributed through electric pumps, a governor's spokeswoman said.
Our grid faces threats from two major sources: 1) our enemies and 2) the sun. During the hearing, former head of the CIA James Woolsey explained that it wouldn't be all that hard for North Korea or, say, Iran to mess with the grid. "There are ways in which electromagnetic pulse threats are more serious than a conventional version of a nuclear threat. For example, deterrents may not work at all with respect to electromagnetic pulse."
Countries with nuclear arms are, theoretically, held at bay by mutually assured destruction: If North Korea were to nuke us, we'd nuke them right back. Crude, but apparently effective. But if North Korea were to hit us with an electromagnetic pulse bomb (a nuclear bomb or scud missile fired into our atmosphere) and knock out the grid, we wouldn't be able to identify them as the source. This is because threat number two, the sun, is equally as likely to hit us with a solar storm that would also render the grid useless.
This is not the first time that the vulnerability of our power system has been discussed. Back in 2009, the National Academies Press published a hefty report titled "Severe Space Weather: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts." Per the report:
The nation’s electric power grids remain vulnerable to disruption and damage by severe space weather and have become even more so, in terms of both widespread blackouts and permanent equipment damage requiring long restoration times.
Today, it seems those threats remain. The panel concluded with agreement that a solution, in the form of blocking devices that would protect the grid from storms or electromagnetic pulses or stocking up on spare parts, is needed. "I hate to call this a first step," Chairman Ron Johnson said at the close of the hearing, "But I guess we're kind of at that stage…it can't be the last step. I'm going to aggressively pursue this." For now, we recommend brushing up on your survival skills.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.