Mainstream media needs to take electric grid security seriously; its peril is more immediate than climate change

John W Boushka
Aug 30, 2018 · 13 min read

On Tuesday, September 4, 2001, I wandered into a Walgreen’s in downtown Minneapolis on lunch break and noticed a startling front cover of a Popular Mechanics magazine issue, with an inside story regarding the possibility of a homemade terrorist “electromagnetic pulse” attack.

At the time, I had barely ever thought about the idea. The printed article, on quick perusal, suggested that an amateur could buy maybe $500 worth or hardware and make a flux bomb that could wipe out the power grid and electronics over a wide area of the nation. I bought a copy and shared it with some coworkers (mostly systems analysts and support) at ING-ReliaStar, and several of them though it was alarming. This was a crazy time: some people had gotten bizarre spam emails over the Labor Day weekend; later that week we had a major virus issue on our systems, and on 9/11 or course, we learned about the terror attacks just as we left for a day long corporate retreat on a river cruise. Major changes in my own circumstances would come, but that’s another narrative. A few months later, the film “Oceans 11” would include a non-nuclear pulse attack on Las Vegas, although the lights would come right back on after the “smash and grab job”. A real-life incident would not let us off so easily.

Over the years (lived mostly in northern Virginia) I noticed a parade of articles warning about a lot of existential physical threats to our way of life, outside of (obviously) nuclear war or (over some number of decades) climate change. The underlying theme is that individuals in our western culture have developed a historically unprecedented dependence on technology, and many of us would not survive were a “Black Swan” catastrophe to appear out of the blue. The threats are varied: natural (solar storms) and enemy caused (electromagnetic pulse, mostly from nuclear weapons), and cyberattacks. There is some parallel to other catastrophic possibilities that technology has created. For example, pandemics may be enabled by air travel, migrations, agricultural practices, and anomalies in medications.

Most of these articles have been published on “conservative” websites or channels, often associated with the doomsday prepper movement, frequently with a moralistic tone. But slowly, media outlets considered mainstream or more in the political center have been reporting on these issues. There have been several books, novels and television series, some by mainstream sources. Oak Ridge National Laboratories and the National Academy of Sciences have produced peer-reviewed articles. There is a tendency for any particular article to focus just on one of these perils and ignore the others.

It also alarming that the federal government has had the services of an unpaid EMP commission, which has now been shut down¹.

There is a general impression, even with electric utility people I have spoken to, that the EMP issue particularly was subsumed within the larger Cold War threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union and possibly China. The idea that rogue states or non-state terror groups with radical agendas and “nothing to lose” could target western (especially US) civilians with such an event has been somewhat slow to gain mainstream credibility. Even given the recent summit with North Korea and most analysts’ opinions about Kim Jong Un’s motives, this grave possibility, of weapons launched out of suicidal spite, remains. Even more disturbing is the lack of general media awareness of the danger from extreme solar storms.

I want to summarize the scope of all the articles on these interconnected issues. Then I will provide an “annotated bibliography” (something I was once assigned to do in undergraduate freshman English before writing the semester term paper) of the literature that has appeared in the past two decades. The general conclusion is that the threat of a major, long-lasting disruption of America’s way of life can happen at any time, and that major media and government need to come clean in public about this threat.

Let’s go over the nature of the threats.

First, consider solar storms. These events can release, in stages, coronal mass ejections in specific directions. On occasion, the Earth may happen to pass through the ejection, whose effects will take place a couple days after the storm. The ejection may be strong enough, in rare cases, to severely undermine the Earth’s protective magnetic field and damage power grid components on considerable areas of the planet (especially in polar regions). Most of the damage may come from large transformer overloading. The strongest storm ever apparently occurred in 1857, pre-technology, the “Carrington Event”. A major power outage in Canada occurred in 1989 from a major storm. In late July 2012, according to NASA, the Earth, by its revolution around a Sun with a rotation of about 27 days, barely missed a major event. ²

The touted electromagnetic pulse threat has several components, E1, E2, and E3. Most of the discussion seems to apply to nuclear electromagnetic pulse from weapons detonated at high altitude. The portion that destroys the power gird is largely the E3 pulse, or the last portion. This is largest with a thermonuclear weapon or hydrogen bomb (such as what North Korea claimed to have detonated in September 2017). The faster portion is the E1, which focuses damage on electronics. Fission weapons and large magnetic flux weapons (such as in use by the military and fortunately not easily acquired by the public so far) focus on E1. Therefore, it is possible (theoretically) to have major long term power failures from an E3 event (which is closer to what a solar storm does) without major damage to personal electronics. Conversely, it is conceivable to have an event based on E1 that stresses mostly damage to equipment, which Faraday cages are supposed to protect, without widespread power failures. In practice, E1 events are probably easier for enemies to stage than E3.

Numerous articles discuss the idea that car ignition systems will be fried. This is probably possible with some ignitions with E1 damage. Very old cars might not be affected. Various products are offered, especially in the prepper community, to provide small Faraday cages for electronics.

Cyberattacks, which have gotten the most attention very recently, are much more widespread in the damage they can do, but it seems relatively unlikely that they can cause the enormous power grid damage the EMP could cause. Power grid equipment is controlled by computers topologically separated from the public Internet much like military systems (this is called “air gapping”). But inside saboteurs can bring hardware that can plant malware manually into an installation, as with required firmware updates. It is possible for this to happen at a small utility and be passed on to other grid components. This is already reported to have happened around 2012. It may be possible to bridge air-gaps with radio or microwave signals or acoustic resonance (link³). The massive northeast power failure in August 2003 shows that there are some flaws in grid firmware that can spread quickly to other geographic areas unless utilities are careful enough to isolate them.

Major Media Inventory

The most straightforward part of a media annotation would comprise newspaper and Internet magazine coverage. But it’s the more viewer and consumer oriented media (books and television) that make a path to the impact of this material.

We first heard bigtime about this problem from the readership of William R. Fortschen’s novel “One Second After”, first published in 2009. It has a foreword by Newt Gingrich and an epilogue by Capt. Bill Sanders, USN. I read and reviewed it in the summer of 2012. A widowed professor in the North Carolina Blue Ridge and his family experience the nationwide blackout suddenly on a spring afternoon. The country is destroyed. Later it is revealed that three missiles launched from the Gulf by unspecified terrorists did us in. One question would be, wouldn’t NORAD have shot the missiles down first? We’ll come back to that. The novel has two sequels in 2015 and 2017, which I haven’t read (yet). There have been plans for a film. There is a good question as to whether the complete E1 and E3 effects could happen with one attack.

The other big novel that concerns a huge power grid threat is “Grid” (2013), by former Senator Byron Dorgan (with David Hagberg), and it emphasizes cyber weapons. The novel presents a physical attack on the grid that somehow delivers malware to critical components. Grid operators are blackmailed later. The novel makes a big point on how difficult it is to replace large transformers.

Let me mention some non-fiction books.

The biggest, by a mainstream journalist, is Ted Koppel’s “Lights Out” (2015). The book ostensibly focuses mainly on the cyberthreats, but it does pay heed to EMP also, and notes that Raytheon has been busy fortifying Cheyenne Mountain. It also spends a lot of space on our technological dependence.

There is also a booklet from the Center for Security Press, “Guilty Knowledge: What the U.S. Government Knows about the Vulnerability of the Electric Grid, but Refuses to Act” (2013).

Ironically there is also a nonfiction book called “The Grid” by Gretchen Bakke, with the subtitle “The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future” (2016), where she advocates decentralization of energy production.

The recent book “The Perfect Weapon” (2018) by New York Times reporter David Sanger covers “only” the cyber threat in detail.

There is a lesser known book “A Nation Forsaken” (2013), by Michael Maloof, who had worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (his political bias does seem conservative). Maloof does a thorough job of covering all the threats, including some novel scenarios for non-nuclear E1 EMP.

There has been one major television series about what the country could be like after an EMP event, “Revolution” on NBC. But the premise was not about a conventional EMP scenario, but that nannites could disable all electric devices suddenly.

The other major coverage on television occurred in August 2016 when a Fox and Sinclair joined to produce a forum in the “Your Voice Your Future” series, from Green Bay WI. The WJLA station in Washington DC advertised it to air but then did not carry it. I watched it online by live streaming.

Gulliver’s Travels

In July 2013, I visited the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and took the afternoon tour, which is given only weekdays in the summer.

In October 2012, ORNL had published a booklet by Metatech’s John Kappenmann, “Geomagnetic Storms and their Impact on the U.S. Power Grid”.

In January 2010 Oak Ridge had published another Metatech paper, “Intentional Electromagnetic Interference (IEMI) and Its Effect on the U.S. Power Grid” (Link⁴)

In August 2012 the National Academy of Sciences had issued a report for purchase, “Severe Space Weather Events, Understanding Societal and Economic Effects, Workshop Report”.

On November 2012 the National Academy of Sciences released a booklet “Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System”.

Periodicals and newspapers:

My high school education in the late 1950s taught me to respect periodicals and major newspapers as the best way to know what is going on. Material published in this kind of media (even allowing for today’s social media algorithmic aggregation problems) generally has the capacity to matter sooner to readers than material in movies, TV, and larger books, or in peer-reviewed academic papers.

So the trend line in periodicals matters a lot in assessing the credibility of the threat.

Going back to 2001, here is the best link⁵ for the Popular Mechanics. Generally, as I recall, other critics (link⁶) later said that it overstated the damage that could be done outside a small local area. It is backed up somewhat by a “How Stuff Works” entry (link⁷). But On Sept. 28, 2017 Popular Mechanics (David Hambling) published a pretty detailed article on how various large EMP weapons potentially available to North Korea could work (link⁸).

Along the lines of non-nuclear EMP, The Washington Times (a conservative paper) produced a story in the fall of 2009 about such a weapon at Aberdeen Proving Grounds NE of Baltimore, available to US ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. I visited the museum in March 2010 and indeed viewed such a weapon. TWT had a picture of a van supposedly with the weapon mounted, implying it could do tremendous damage if ever driven through residential areas.

NBC News, early this year, suggested that Trump’s bloody nose attack on DPRK could be a nonnuclear microwave EMP (link⁹), a report which adds credibility to the idea an enemy might do that to us (a large drone, maybe).

The Wall Street Journal is nominally conservative (pro business) but certainly mainstream and fact-based. On Feb 27, 2017, former CIA director (under Clinton) James Woolsey and Peter Vincent Pry authored an op-ed warning about North Korea’s EMP potential, which would include the possibility of a satellite launch from the “Shining Star” (at least for E1) (link¹⁰). Woolsey also talks about the government’s EMP commission. But Pry had co-authored an earlier piece (April 30, 2015) in the WSJ mentioning the North Korea EMP threat long before Trump was even running for president (link¹¹).

Vox, in an article by Zack Beauchamp, criticized Rick Santorum and Ben Carson for mentioning EMP in January 2016 (link¹²). But Lucianne Walkowicz offered a article on Vox in September 2016 on solar storms. (link¹³).

The Huffington Post, the most “liberal” of all the publications so far, offers, in December 2017 in a piece by Dennis Santiago, a strategy (link¹⁴) for powering down many of the big interconnections in the grid in the 90 minutes or so of warning that nuclear missiles (possibly hydrogen bombs which can deliver E3) were headed to the continental US. This is an expansion of strategy already developed for Carrington-style solar storms with their 2 day warning (especially since the 2012 scare), he implies. Santiago had offered a similar earlier paper (link¹⁵) in September 2017, right after Kim Jong Un’s first supposed H-bomb test. But Fox News had published a similar warning apparently just before Kim’s H-bomb test (link¹⁶).

Don Beyer (D-Va) told a town hall which I attended and asked a question on this, in January 2018, that DHS has a handle on the transformer problem. But a personal visit to a Dominion Power visitor center suggested that any enemy threat would also include E1 before E3, and that the power industry did not have the ability to put Faraday cages around everything the way the military does!

Huffington also had plenty to say about Newt Gingrich’s op-ed after the 2012 derecho, suggesting that the East Coast had endured a micro-dress rehearsal of what was to come (link¹⁷) .

Missile Defense:

The obvious remaining question, at least as far as missiles from North Korea (and maybe rogue satellites), would be, wouldn’t missile defense neuter the threat and keep the peace? That’s what Ronald Reagan had proposed back in 1983. Various historians then report that “going all the way” with this idea would have been destabilizing. My general impression from the literature is that NORAD (and the Coast Guard) probably could contain four or five missiles, say from North Korea. In fact, when I worked for the Navy as a computer programmer back in 1971–72, I worked on missile defense simulations then (preparing for SALT talks) so I know we were quite advanced even then. News stories are mixed, but recent tests are uneven (link¹⁸ link¹⁹ link²⁰). Of course, we all know that Vladimir Putin shredded this idea last spring (link²¹), probably as a swipe on references to Reagan’s 1983 optimism.

Vox, in a recent interview of Alexander Klimburg by Sean Illing in June 2017, does consider an actual cyber threat to the power grid (even given air gaps) as serious as EMP (E3 level) or solar storms, and notes that the Internet has turned the corner on empowering the individual to participate in debate in is own terms and getting a pushback from authoritarian (or tribal) force. (link²²)

What is the individual citizen to make of all this? I certainly remember how the moralistic conversations of personal preparedness ramped up quickly after 9/11. There is a significant “prepper” community in the US that believes that preparedness to live without technology after some great calamity is a moral imperative to be expected of everyone (that most certainly includes weapons ownership and proficiency). My own feeling is that, at 75, I would have nothing to offer such a world as described in “One Second After” or “Revolution”. I would not belong in it. My emphasis in on prevention, and then getting our civilizations through the next great dangers (like climate change and perhaps asteroid defense). I am not trying to stake out a “conservative” position for its own sake.

Our major mainstream media ought to take up this problem systematically and report on it. It certainly sounds like a good topic for a major documentary film, comparable to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” on climate change itself. But if so, the filmmaker needs to have a reputation of good standing with the political mainstream and center and for maintaining journalistic standards of objectivity. I don’t care who is president: Congress should renew major hearings on the topic.

Note: the title of this piece refers to “electric grid”: technically, there are three of them, for the Eastern, the Western, and Texas Interconnections. The major industry group is the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (or NREC). (link²³)

[1] http://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/353996-north-korea-won-the-battle-against-americas-emp-commission

http://www.empcommission.org/docs/empc_exec_rpt.pdf

https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/washington-secrets/emp-commission-warns-blackout-of-electricity-food-water-to-last-year-or-longer-huge-death-toll

[2] https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2014/23jul_superstorm

https://www.space.com/26669-huge-solar-storm-2012-destruction.html 2

[3]

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2018-08-14/battlefield-internet

[4]

https://www.ferc.gov/industries/electric/indus-act/reliability/cybersecurity/ferc_meta-r-323.pdf

[5]

http://www.superconductors.org/emp-bomb.htm Popular Mechanics sept 100`

[6]

http://www.futurescience.com/emp/emp-gen.html

[7]

https://science.howstuffworks.com/e-bomb3.htm

[8]

https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/news/a28425/emp-north-korea/

[9]

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/north-korea/microwave-weapon-could-fry-north-korean-missile-controls-say-experts-n825361

[10]

https://www.wsj.com/articles/dont-underestimate-north-koreas-nuclear-arsenal-1488239693

[11]

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-threat-to-melt-the-electric-grid-1430436815?mg=prod/accounts-wsj

{12}

https://www.vox.com/2016/1/14/10773716/gop-debate-2016-fox-business-emp

[13]

https://www.vox.com/2016/9/12/12882066/space-weather-solar-flare-internet-dangers

[14]

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/neutering-north-koreas-emp-threat-making-the-us-power_us_5a3ae575e4b0d86c803c6ea0

[15]

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/understanding-north-koreas-emp-threat_us_59ae115de4b0bef3378cdad9

[16]

http://www.fox32chicago.com/news/national/north-korea-threatens-to-attack-power-grid

[17]

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/31/newt-gingrich-emp_n_1724081.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/newt-gingrich-preparing-for-the-next-outage/2012/07/12/gJQAI1QQgW_story.html?utm_term=.a00f11f8c68a&wprss=rss_opinions

https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/10/16/the-trump-administration-has-no-plan-for-dealing-with-a-north-korean-emp-attack/

[18]

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/world/north-korea-missile-defense/?utm_term=.7f934db6e089

[19]

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/16/us/politics/north-korea-missile-defense-cyber-drones.html

[20]

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/could-the-u-s-actually-shoot-down-a-north-korean-missile

[21]

https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/01/europe/putin-russia-missile-intl/index.html

[22]

https://www.vox.com/2017/7/26/15981824/internet-cybersecurity-net-neutrality-klimburg-the-darkening-web

[23]

https://www.nerc.com/Pages/default.aspx

John W Boushka

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I am author of the three "Do Ask, Do Tell" books. Retired I.T., blogger on policy issues since 2006