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“Without power to refineries, pipelines and pumping stations, we may run out of fuel in a matter of days, shutting down our backup systems,” Hunt said. “As we played out this scenario, most participants indicated we might reach a tipping point for food, water, medical and emergency services, beyond which recovery becomes problematic and would likely be measured in years, not months.”
Hunt concluded: “the nation has not even begun to prepare for how to respond to such an event… It’s not even on the conscious radar screen of the nation.”
Dr. George H. Baker, a physicist who worked on the staff of the Congressionally-mandated EMP Commission, noted that while such a scenario was “bleak,” holding such exercises was important because it highlighted the need for public education.
“We need to do a much better job at educating our citizens, public officials and first responders. A lot of the people who came to these exercises had no idea of the severity, the seriousness of the effects, that we could shut down the entire national power grid for extended periods,” Dr. Baker said. “People didn’t know that.”
And yet, even as all this information is coming out, there are many in industry and even in the government who are playing for time and money to conduct additional exercises and simultations to determine how much damage would be done to power transformers by an EMP event.
The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) conducted the first real-world scale simulation of an EMP attack on the power grid on an isolated 13-mile segment of grid they own in rural Idaho. Because they were told not to destroy equipment, they only simulated the effects at a 10% load on the transformers.
“That’s kind of like testing the engine of a sports car while it’s at idle,” one expert told me.
Even at that unrealistic low level, the INL engineers found that the transformers experienced 80-90% energy loss when blasted with a massive EMP wave. In other words, instead of transforming the energy, they absorbed it, creating heat.
“If the transformer is fully loaded, the temperature is going to be significantly higher than where we operated it,” said chief test scientist, Scott McBride. “So if you are already operating hot, you only need a smaller incremental addition of heat to cause the break down of the insulation system.”
I asked him if he had any doubt that in the event of a bigger event – a major solar flare, or a nuclear EMP that lasted longer than the 8 second “blast” his simulators had used to test the power grid, that the transformers would blow up, McBride thought long and hard.
“If we could have a duration significantly longer than our 8 second pulse, yeah, we could cause that transformer to fail.”
It was one of those “duh” moments. And yet, Dr. Alenka Brown, the National Defense University official who chaired the table top exercises, said the impact of a geomagnetic event on the power grid “is still debatable” and required further study.
As for an EMP caused by a non-attributable nuclear weapon exploded in the upper atmosphere by Iran or North Korea – a scenario that clearly worried most of the participants in the table-top exercises – Dr. Alenka Brown shut down all discussion. “We don’t want people getting out duct tape and plastic,” she said.
I’m going with Maryland’s Michael Fisher. We know plenty already about the catastrophic effects of a geomagnetic or EMP event. The time to prepare is now.
“We are now 100% vulnerable to a major EMP attack or to a major geomagnetic event,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R, AZ), sponsor of H.R. 668, also known as the SHIELD Act.
Rep. Franks blasted the Obama administration for spending more effort to rebuke Israel for building houses in its capital than on preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Even worse, he said, was the failure to protect the national power grid, a vulnerability that only invited attack.
“Indeed, by decreasing our vulnerability, we may reduce the likelihood that terrorists or rogue states will attempt such an attack in the first place,” Franks said.
There comes a moment in the life of nearly every problem when it’s big enough to be seen by reasonable people and still small enough to be solved, Franks said. “I think you and I live in that moment, when there still may be time for the free world to address and mitigate the vulnerability that naturally occurring or weaponized EMP represents to the mechanisms of our civilization.”
For less than $1 billion, we can harden the national power grid and prevent this type of disaster from shutting down our society. What are Congress and the Obama administration waiting for?
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