Doomsday preppers or congressional visionaries?
A small but growing cadre of House members is set to relaunch efforts to protect the nation against what they say is a very real threat: the unleashing of an electromagnetic pulse either by a solar storm or a nuclear-armed foe that could cripple much of the nation’s electrical infrastructure.
“I realize there is skepticism, and I understand it’s easy to dismiss this as something coming from people who might go around wearing tinfoil hats,” said Rep. Trent Franks , R-Ariz. , one of the leaders of the little-known bipartisan congressional Electromagnetic Pulse Caucus.
But Franks said that he and other members of the caucus—which has seen its roster grow to at least 18 members from 11 last session—will keep pressing “in a low-key way so as not to try to scare people” to show that the dangers are legitimate. Now is the time to take steps to protect the nation’s electric grid, said Franks, a House Armed Services Committee member who is also cochairman of the 39-member Missile Defense Caucus.
At the top of this effort is the belief that every facet of routine life could be at risk for a short or even long period of time with the disabling of key parts of the nation’s infrastructure. Computers and circuits of homes, hospitals, supermarkets, water-treatment facilities, and banks would be fried; telecommunications and transportation systems would grind to a halt; and public safety and even national security could be compromised.
Some of those concerned envision scenarios in which terrorists or some hostile or rogue state, such as Iran or North Korea, might someday build or acquire and then launch and detonate a nuclear warhead above the United States with the intent of triggering such a devastating electromagnetic pulse.
Aside from such an above-atmosphere detonation of a nuclear bomb to carry out this havoc, there are concerns that electromagnetic energy from a massive geomagnetic storm from the sun or a comet might do the same.
The upshot is that Franks and others believe that the nation’s electrical infrastructure should be “hardened” with protected key circuitry and other equipment against such an EMP burst, which might be likened to a super powerful voltage surge or lightning strike. That would entail making some changes, including installation of strong current blockers, and power producers having backup transformers ready to go.
Both Franks and another leading EMP Caucus member, Rep. Yvette Clark, D-N.Y. , are the organizing cochairs of the upcoming Fourth Annual World Summit on Infrastructure Security to be held May 20-21 in Washington . Clark is the ranking member of the Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies Subcommittee of the Homeland Security Committee.
But perhaps the most recognized American politician to embrace the view that there is an EMP threat worth worrying about is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He even wrote the forward to a 2009 apocalyptic science-fiction thriller, One Second After, by a friend and sometimes coauthor, William R. Forstchen, about terrorists detonating a high-altitude nuclear bomb over the United States to unleash an electromagnetic pulse that disables the electrical system.
Last year, during weather-related power outages in the Washington area, Gingrich tweeted, “Friend and coauthor bill forstchen notes washington-baltimore blackout mild taste of what an emp (electromagnetic pulse) attack would do.”
But the push for congressional action remains an uphill one, partly because the debate over the urgency remains stuck in a theoretical realm.
Franks’ bill itself quotes directly from the work of a little-publicized government commission, titled “Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States From Electromagnetic Pulse Attack.” That congressionally created panel released its executive report in 2004 and a final version in 2008, concluding that the threat of an electromagnetic pulse is very real and that “the current vulnerability of our critical infrastructures can both invite and reward attack if not corrected.”
That commission’s chairman was William Graham, a science adviser to former President Reagan. He also had chaired the Committee on the Strategic Defense Initiative, known also as the “Star Wars” program, intended to develop a sophisticated system to prevent missile attacks from other countries. In his written testimony about the electromagnetic-threat report to the House Armed Services Committee on July 10, 2008, Graham said, “Terrorists or state actors that possess one or a few relatively unsophisticated nuclear-armed missiles may well calculate that, instead of or in addition to destroying a city or military base, they could obtain the greatest economic-political-military utility from conducting an EMP attack.”
Yet scientists and other experts still have differences of opinion over what the impacts of EMP blasts would be, either from a nuclear device exploded at high altitude or from a solar blast. In the absence of conclusive research and actual testing of such things as the exact size of the explosion necessary to cause an EMP, skepticism persists over the extent of an EMP’s power to damage electronic-dependent infrastructures.
In addition, some suggest that worry about terrorists or such rogue nations as Iran or North Korea carrying out such attacks with the explosion of a nuclear warhead above the United States is being hyped.
“I think that this is overblown; this is an incredibly unlikely scenario—for a variety of reasons,” says Robert Farley, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.
For one thing, Farley argues, a rogue state or terrorist group isn’t likely to choose to use its scarce nuclear weaponry—once obtained—for a theoretical EMP strategy that might not work, as opposed to seeking a direct hit on some targets.
Farley also is among those who suggest that a purpose of what he calls this EMP “awareness movement” might really be the advancement of the cause of a more-robust missile defense. He says that’s because “the most extreme estimates of the effect of EMP restore the Cold War-era existential fears of nuclear war.”
But Franks, who eagerly identifies himself as a “defense hawk,” flatly refutes that his efforts to seek more protection for the nation’s electrical infrastructure are connected to missile-defense boosterism. He is among seven members of the EMP Caucus who also are members of the Missile Defense Caucus. But in an interview, he makes an effort to put more of an emphasis on his concerns about the possibility of massive solar flares, rather than a hostile attack, prompting an EMP. And he also makes a point of saying the military has already “hardened” its systems against electromagnetic pulse events, but that the civilian grid remains unprepared.
Specifically, his bill authorizes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to call on regional entities charged with enforcing mandatory reliability standards for bulk power producers and operators to order that they take measures to protect their systems, including those critical to the nation’s defenses.
In short, his bill requires entities that own or operate large transformers to ensure their power systems can be restored promptly in the event of destruction or disability as a result of attack or geomagnetic storm. The bill would allow the costs to be recovered by raising regulated rates or market prices for the electric energy or services sold.
Franks said he had been led to believe last session that his bill would be brought to the House floor for a vote. But he said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., let it die in committee. He said he has been unable to get an explanation from Upton.
There was no comment from a committee spokesman. But a House aide who did not want to be identified by name said that there is now “an ongoing rulemaking proceeding at FERC on the issue of geomagnetic disturbances that the committee is monitoring.”