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AMERICAN BLACKOUT- A Real Life Nightmare Nearer Than You Think

by R. JAMES WOOLSEY, DR. PETER VINCENT PRY

Four days before Halloween, on Sunday morning, October 27, 2013, terrorists in Mexico’s Michoacan state blacked out the electric grid, leaving some 420,000 powerless and thirteen dead. That same Sunday night, National Geographic aired the docudrama American Blackout.  This fictionalized account of a cyber attack on the electric grid depicts some of the horrific consequences of a nationwide blackout lasting 10 days:

People get trapped in elevators and become virtual prisoners in their high-rise apartment buildings.  Gasoline is rationed to the military and hospitals, so the average American has no transportation–except for his legs.  Food and water become so scarce that there is a life and death struggle over a can of peaches.  Before day 10 of the blackout, society starts breaking down into anarchy as gangs and vigilante groups run wild.

One of the heroes of the docudrama, a survivalist who is prepared for anything and does everything right, except for one seemingly small and humane mistake, is about to have his throat cut, when electric power, and civilization, suddenly returns on day 10.

National Geographic is to be applauded for American Blackout which is essentially a training film to educate the American people about the very real threat posed to their lives by a cyber attack on the electric grid.  If there is any fault or unrealism in the docudrama, it is that the blackout lasts only 10 days, and recovery is achieved so quickly.

In real life, terrorists or rogue states would probably not limit their attack on the nation’s electric grid to computer viruses or hacking, as implied in the docudrama.  They would also use other more destructive means–that could cause a protracted national blackout lasting months or years.

Moreover, Mother Nature can inflict a potentially protracted national blackout.  Regardless of how one weighs the threat to the national grid from terrorists or rogue states–the Sun will, sooner or later, hurl toward the Earth a geomagnetic super-storm, with catastrophic consequences for the national electric grid….

….What is to be done about the Cyber and EMP threats?

There is no excuse for the United States to be vulnerable to EMP or to the worst case cyber scenarios as depicted in American Blackout.  The U.S. Department of Defense has understood for 50 years how to protect military systems from EMP.  Private vendors specializing in EMP protection are standing by with faraday cages, surge arrestors, blocking devices and other technology, ready to protect the national electric grid.

Technically, it is important to understand that surge arrestors and other hardware designed to protect against EMP can also protect against the worst-case cyber scenarios that, for example, envision computer viruses collapsing the national power grid.  For example, surge arrestors that protect Extra High Voltage transformers from EMP can also protect transformers from  damaging electrical surges caused by a computer virus that manipulates the grid Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition Systems (SCADAS).

Unfortunately, the electric power industry so far shows no inclination to invest in the technologies necessary to protect the national electric grid.  The congressional EMP Commission estimates that robust protection of the national electric grid could be achieved for a one-time investment of $2 billion–which is what the U.S. gives every year in foreign aid to Pakistan.  The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) estimates that EMP protection of the national grid would increase the electric bill of the average rate payer by 20 cents annually.

Administratively, a coherent and effective answer will not likely arise from uncoordinated decisions made independently by the thousands of individual electric utilities and  industries at risk.  Because cyber preparedness should encompass EMP preparedness–and since EMP is an existential threat–it is imperative that Government play a supervisory and coordinating role to achieve protection against these threats swiftly:

–The President should sign the Executive Order provided to the White House by the Congressional EMP Commission directing that the national electric grid shall be protected against EMP;

–The Congress should pass the SHIELD Act, which has been stalled before the House Energy and Commerce Committee for three years.  SHIELD empowers the U.S. FERC with legal and financial authorities to protect the national grid from EMP;

-States should not wait for Washington, but should immediately launch their own legislative initiatives, as done already by the State of Maine, to protect that portion of the electric grid within their states.  States can “island” their grids, which will in no way impede their ability to receive or export electric power from or to other states, and thereby protect their people from an EMP catastrophe.

–Industry should start manufacturing Extra-High Voltage (EHV) transformers, SCADAS, and other critical technologies hardened against EMP.  Defense Department experience with hardening military systems has shown that, when systems are built with EMP protection as part of the original design, it only adds 1-3 percent to manufacturing cost.  As old EHV transformers are retired and other systems are replaced with new systems designed EMP hard, not only the United States, but the entire Free World would eventually become protected from an EMP catastrophe.

The Unfree World, Russia and China, have already hardened their grids against EMP.

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2 Responses

  1. It is being aired in the UK tonight 4/11/13

  2. Situations like this can force conservative-types to choose between “small government” and security. Even the Heritage Foundation has been slow on this one, because they didn’t want to interfere with the “flexibility” of businesses. Well, if something isn’t done, there won’t be any businesses to exercise flexibility!

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