Cato Institute holds forum on North Korea and escalation of tensions while Trump visits

On Monday, November 6, 2017 the Cato Institute in Washington DC held a three-part, three hour forum (9AM -noon), “How Do You Solve a Problem Like North Korea?”

I did not have time yesterday to get to it, so I watched the live feed.  It’s pretty effective, although the volume is low and sometimes the sound is out of sync with the lips.  Here is the basic link for all of the video.   The link gives the syllabus and identifies all the speakers.

But what was said is critical.

In the first session “Pyongyang’s Capabilities and US Policy”, the last speaker Joe Cirincione from the Ploughshares Fund was quite blunt.  He said that the U.S. probably does not have the capability to stop all incoming missiles over the U.S. once North Korea masters the ability to send them with thermonuclear weapons.  There was some mention of the probabilities of war (some as high as 50%), literally like at the beginning of “Gone with the Wind“.  Earlier Joshua Pollack (“The Nonproliferation Review”) said that North Korea had only to master “old technology” well known from the Soviets and from China. Suzanne DiMaggio, of New America, spoke also (her NYTimes piece, “How Trump Should Talk to North Korea“, followed).

The last session, “New Approaches to Solving the North Korea Problem”, saw Michael Austin (Hoover Foundation) in particular raising questions as to whether being South Korea’s protector indefinitely could remain a sustainable best interest of the United States. Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute seemed to echo a similar concern. While some speakers today agree with the theory that Kim Jong Un’s insistence on having nuclear weapons is simply his strategy for surviving (given what happened to Saddam Hussein and Gadaffi) there was also some skeptoicism, that, once he has the ability to hit the U.S., Un might start demanding that the U.S. halt all exercises near South Korea or even withdraw completely, or lift sanctions. That sounds like the “domino theory” that led to the escalation in Vietnam during the Johnson Administration, where I wound up getting drafted myself in early 1968 (setting up, ironically, my own subsequent involvement in repealing “don’t ask don’t tell” decades later).  Bandow, particularly, talked about how the Soviet Union and particularly Communist China (as during the Maoist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s) were seen as an existential “political” threat to the American way of life that North Korea cannot be, as repulsive as the regime may be now. But the speakers also noted the apparently docility and gullibility of the people, who will sacrifice and “eat grass” for their fat little leader (“fat little Rocket Man”, to quote Donald Trump with a little seasoning from Milo Yiannopoulos, although not during Trump’s current Asia trip).

Will Ripley had reported on North Korean people on CNN recently (the notorious “no chest hair” line) and now reports on CNN on Trump’s trip. Trump wants to put the DPRK on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and indeed there is concern that Iran or terror groups in Muslim world will get nuclear technology underground from North Korea.

No one on the panel or in the audience mentioned the possible EMP threats from North Korean missiles.  I did tweet a question about it but it was not read.

Wikipedia link on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction.

Here is a link with the text of Trump’s speech in South Korea later Tuesday (Wed AM there).

UBS (n September) created a link for its investors with discussion of North Korea, with a link to a 37-minute podcast to a retired admiral.  The audio says that US atmospheric defenses are much more advanced than deep space systems, which have slowed down on the theory that the Soviets could have overwhelmed anything Reagan had wanted to do with his “Star Wars”. There is also a whimsical note that people watch the Pentagon parking lot and Metro for increased activity.  There really hasn’t been much lately. I make mental note on Uber or cab rides home from the bars late weekends.

(Posted: Tuesday, November 7, 2017, at 9:30 AM)

We need to be prepared, as a nation, to house people quickly after catastrophes

I can remember, even living in Arlington having returned to look after Mother, the shock in that late August morning of 2005 learning when I got up that Hurricane Katrina had been much worse than expected.

I would volunteer some time at the Red Cross in nearby Falls Church (mixing the shifts with substitute teaching at the time) finding with many callers there was very little we could do but tell them to wait hours on the line for FEMA.

Over time, a few hundred people settled temporarily in the DC area.  Many more settled in Texas, and I believe that in some cases families, or especially individuals, were housed in private homes.  I at least wondered if we could be asked to do this.  I’ve entertained this kind of emergency before (May 18, 2016).

The Sunday before Hurricane Sandy (which came inland on a Monday night in late October 2012) the pastor at an Arlington VA church gave a sermon on “radical hospitality”. Fortunately, there was little damage in this area from the storm.

I’ve also documented on this blog some of the issues with hosting asylum seekers, which I have suspended as I consider moving (no more details right now).

And I’ve noted the somewhat informal private hosting website “Emergency BNB”. And the sharing economy, developed by companies like Airbnb, many people, especially younger adults, may be used to the idea of keeping their homes ready to be shared, which is not something that would have been very practical for me during most of my own adult life. Younger adults may be less interested in collecting possessions that could be put at risk from a security perspective. Music and film could be stored in the Cloud.

Younger adults living in “earthy” neighborhoods (like New York City’s East Village) or in certain rural areas, even in collectives or intentional communities, and used to social interdependence, may be more willing to share their spaces with less attention to personal, material or legal liability risks.  Many do not have an economically realistic choice, beyond building on common social capital, as Rick Santorum or Charles Murray would describe the idea.

Along these lines, then, I wonder again about emergency housing in the context of disaster or catastrophe preparedness.  I see I took this up Sept. 22, 2016 (before the Trump election) in conjunction with preparedness month.

A few of my friends on Facebook do indeed come from the doomsday prepper crowd, and it rather alarms me how much they are into it.  A sizable number of people do not believe you can count of civilization to last forever.  They see personal self-reliance in a rural home as a moral prerequisite to participating in a world that goes beyond the immediate surroundings. Indeed, ever since 9/11, we have been warned that at some point, whole generations of people may have to rebuild the world from scratch, as in NBC’s series “Revolution” which predicates a bizarre kind of EMP event.  I say I would have nothing to offer such a world at 74,

We could indeed face a grave threat to personal security in the homeland even in 2018.  War with North Korea might be impossible to avoid, and at least a couple small nuclear strikes on the US homeland might be impossible to prevent.  As a matter of policy, what happens to the people who survive but lose everything?  Insurance doesn’t cover war (whether it covers terrorism is controversial).  Will the government indemnify them?  (It more or less did a lot of this after 9/11.)  Or will we depend on the volunteerism of “GoFundMe”? which to me has sounded self-indulgent and tacky sometimes.

It does seem that we need some kind of “national discussion” or town-hall on this.  Would seniors aging alone in oversized homes be able to take people in?  Would we expect that?  Well, we really don’t do that now with our own homeless.

Any North Korean domestic nuclear strike would probably involve a small low-yield nuclear weapon. If you look at charts like this one, you see that the number of casualties and total property damage in a city might be less than one expects.  The radiation damage is another matter.  But one can imagine calls for people in distant states to house and take in the “victims” as they may never have an uncontaminated habitable home neighborhood to return to (even with Katrina that did not hold).  It is appropriate to consider how effective the manufactured housing industry can be (with Katrina the result was not that good).

Again, another issue is the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse, which would damage all electronics in a very wide region.  Have Silicon Valley companies protected their infrastructure from this sort of thing?  One day we could find most of the Internet (and “GoFundMe”) gone forever if they haven’t.  There is very little written about this.

Nobody likes talk like this to be “thinkable”.  But the preppers have a moral point.  Resilient and prepared people are less inviting targets for an otherwise determined enemy.  Maybe that’s what “America first” means.

(Posted: Wednesday, August 2, 2017 at 3:15 PM EDT)

Bloggers, press credentials, and “legitimacy”

Last week I went to a small demonstration about the lapsing of network neutrality on the Capitol grounds.  After all the speeches, Sen. Markin (D-MA) asked if there were questions, from the press (non-restrictive, I thought). But when I didn’t have a media company employing me (I said I was “independent”) I was “silenced”. Here is my legacy blog account of the incident.

Then, yesterday “it” happened again.  I got an email from a PR company about an opportunity to interview a particular transgender activist, who was going to speak in Washington at a meeting of the American Federation of Teachers.  I asked if I could just go to the meeting.  Apparently, only if I worked for a media company.  I got the impression the PR person wouldn’t have offered the interview had he realized I work solo.

In fact, I get a lot of emails asking if I would interview someone.  Some, but probably a minority, of them mention the possibility of articles on one of my legacy Blogger sites (like “Bill of GLBT Issues”) which obviously don’t come from a “professional news organization.” Most of these invitations are with persons with very narrowly focused niche issues (sometimes embedded in identity politics), or sometimes very specific products or services to sell (of the “self-help” variety), not of broadband interest, so I usually don’t try to follow up.  But what if I got an invitation to talk to someone involved in an issue I view as critical and underreported by the mainstream press, like power grid security?

One of the best links on this issue seems to come from NPPA, “The Voice of Visual Journalists”, which poses the blunt question “How do I obtain press credentials if I do not work for a newspaper or magazine or I am a freelancer?”

There is a US Press Association which appears to offer cards for a membership fee, and I’m not sure how well recognized it is by the industry.

Some videos suggest that “YouTubers” and Bloggers can get press passes for trade shows (like CES) if they are persistent enough.

But many other sources on the Web (for example, WikiHow) suggest that you need to work for someone, and get paid for what you do, at least with a contractual agreement if not an actual employee.   It would be a good question if you can work for your own company in this sense.  Maybe you would have to register your business with the state you live or work in, or show that it pays its own way with normal accounting.

Of course, it’s obvious that many events have to keep the audience small and limited because of space and security reasons (White House briefings).

On the other hand, many events (such as QA’s for newly released motion pictures at film festivals) are open to the public (buying tickets) and take questions from anyone.  Most of the video I present on my parallel “media reviews” blog (older than this one) come from this setup.

There’s a potential dark cloud down the road regarding the issue of press credentials or legitimacy (v. amateurism).  Imagine a world a few years from now where all network neutrality has been eliminated, and only the websites of “credentialed” organizations can be connected to ISP’s   Sounds like Russia or China, maybe.

On the other hand, Donald Trump has expressed a dislike of mainstream “liberal” media companies (CNN, most of the television broadcast networks, most of the big city newspapers), but respects only outlets like Fox, OANN, and maybe even Breitbart, maybe even Milo.  Maybe he actually respects me.

For the record, let me say that I am interested in working with news outlets on some critical issues.  I can’t give more details right now.

(Posted: Wednesday, July 19, 2017 at 11 AM)

James Woolsey (ex CIA) warns CNN that North Korea might be capable of detonating EMP weapon from orbiting satellite soon, even now

Today, Monday, March 6, 2017 Erin Burnett gave former CIA director James Woolsey an interview in the 7:30 PM slot, and Woolsey defended his recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal warning that North Korea could pose a much bigger and more immediate threat to the United States even now than we realize.

Specifically, he suggested that North Korea could be capable of detonating a nuclear device from an orbiting satellite now.

Erin Burnett herself introduced the word “apocalyptic”.  Woolsey said there is disagreement as to how many US transformers on the power grids could survive the overload that would result.  Woolsey’s op-ed calls for strengthening the grid right now.  Bannon’s infrastructure programs so far have not mentioned this problem.  One way to strengthen the grids would be to require utilities to have their own small original generating stations and be less dependent on load sharing with other companies.  (That brings back the whole AC vs. DC debate in the early 20th century, as one time documented on the History Channel “The Men Who Built America”, 2012 episode).  Taylor Wilson (who has been supported by Peter Thiel, who supported Trump) has proposed that these small stations be shielded underground fission reactors.

I do recall many scenarios (as in “One Second After”) proposed where scud-type missiles fire off the US coast from clandestine ships create a high-altitude EMP result. There are even some non-nuclear magnetic flux devices that could be detonated on the group (as in a  mystery Popular Mechanics article shortly before 9/11 in 2001).  But I don’t recall mention of the satellite threat before, not even in Ted Koppel’s book “Lights Out”.

I do see, however, a report about North Korean satellites with this capability on a smaller conservative web site reported back in April 2016.    Wikipedia has details on one satellite.

There have been many reports in recent days of North Korea missile test attempts.  President Donald Trump has not said (or tweeted) much about them yet (except, “not going to happen”).  CNN has a story today, questioning whether North Korean missiles could overwhelm THAAD.

In November 2015, I was reading later chapters in Ted Koppel’s book on the Metro in Washington when a college-age young man looked over my shoulder to read it.  That someone that age would notice this subject matter is encouraging.

There are some issues, for preserving freedom for everyone, that seem more pressing to me than the bathroom bills.

(Published: Monday, March 6, 2017 at 9:45 PM EST)

Update: Thursday, April 6, 2017 at 10:45 PM EST

A Facebook friend (somewhat connected to the prepper crowd) passed on this link from a family security website discussing Woolsey’s predictions about North Korea and even invoking the “fake news” idea.  Note the mention of Popular Mechanics, which had discussed non-nuclear EMP in an issue shortly before 9/11 back in 2001. (The Washington Times discussed it in 2009).  Here is the link.

Update: Tuesday, April 11, 2017  6:15 PM EDT

Common sense would say that DPRK would already need to have developed a miniaturized device that could have been placed on a satellite.  Would we know?  Or could they deploy another satellite soon? DPRK’s statements remain belligerent after the Syria intervention by President Trump.

 

 

Obama’s pre-election use of “red phone” to Moscow actually underscores eventual power grid vulnerability to cyberwar

NBC News reported tonight that on Halloween morning, October 31, 2016, a Monday and eight days before the election, President Obama used the “red phone” line with Moscow for the first time during his presidency.  He reiterated a warning to the Kremlin not to interfere with the election, following up on a session in later September when Obama reportedly told Putin to “stop it”.

On Nov. 4, news media began to report concerns over possible attacks or infrastructure (Internet and power grid) disruptions on Election Day and perhaps the day before.  The threats were supposed to be credible.  On Nov. 5, I reported here a story that some American utilities had been infected with malware as early as 2012 and that the malware could not be easily removed.

The Obama administration, on Oct. 31, was still concerned that an Oct. 21 “denial of service” attack on some companies providing URL domain name resolution has been perpetrated by Russia as a “dry run”.  There are some accounts of how the attack happened, as here on “WeLiveSecurity”    and this statement by DYN. It’s well to remember that back in 2008, researchers in Finland had found a hole in the domain name resolution system that necessitated an emergency meeting with Microsoft in Seattle (story)  And historically it’s a little ironic that this summit happened just a little before the financial crash in September 2008.

More recent investigations seem to have discounted the idea that the Oct. 21 DDOS came from the Russian government.

But the media has also been concerned with various reports from the FBI, CIA and other agencies that the Russians hacked servers of both the Republicans and Democrats, posted embarrassing information about Democrats on Wikileakds, and helped alt-right sources spread “fake news” that influenced the election, especially in swing and “blue wall” states.  It’s hard for me to believe that the claim that this changed the election is really credible, but Matthew Yglesias has a very detailed explanation on Vox here. This is the activity that led Obama to tell Putin to “stop it” the first time.

All of this I write today while listening on CNN to reports of an apparent crude but vicious terror attack in Berlin, Germany by a carjacked truck in a crowd, leading to deaths and horrific injuries, and to a “Word War I”-like assassination of a Russian ambassador to Turkey today at an art gallery.

So for any president to talk “tough” to Russia can run the risk of a backlash, where an attack on the US power grid may be possible because of the reports of the 2012 malware planting.  This sort of problem was covered by Ted Koppel in his 2015 book “Lights Out” and is related to the over-dependence of major utilities on huge transformers to adjust loads, and to the inability of the US to manufacture replacement transformers.

This may be a good place to say that Donald Trump’s “make America great again” phrase when used in conjunction with doing more manufacturing at home is certainly appropriate when it comes to major hardware items at the heart of our infrastructure.  Bringing some of that manufacturing back would provide more domestic engineering and manufacturing jobs, and seems essential to prevent possibly catastrophic breakdowns in the power grid infrastructure, either from Carrington-like solar storms or terror attacks or Hitchcock-style sabotage.  Bur it’s also important for utilities to provide more of their own local generation, and this may be much more economical now with renewable technologies (including Taylor Wilson’s small fission reactors) than fossil fuels, although many such small generating stations could probably use natural gas (the “Pickens Plan”).  This one particular matter needs Donald Trump’s focused attention on Day 1 (now that his Electoral College victory is assured today), and it is totally a-political and not particularly concerned with any one voting constituency.

(Posted: Monday, December 19, 2016 at 11:30 PM EST)

 

 

 

 

 

Underground operation (a sting?) in Dallas obtained enough material for a dirty bomb

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The Washington Post is reporting that a secret group out-skirted the rules of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and accumulated enough material for a dirty bomb, in this alarming piece from the Center for Public Integrity by Patrick Malone   The CPR has its own link for the story here.  I did not see the story this morning on the print version of the Post that gets delivered. I don’t see the story yet (as of time of publication) in the online Dallas Morning News, which surprises me. (I lived there 1979-1988.)

The group operated in Texas (Dallas), Michigan and North Dakota.  It was not immediately clear if this was a (legitimate) undercover group simply trying to probe a weakness in the NRC’s security procedures (maybe to expose the Obama administration) or whether it had intended to use the materials.

There are procedures to keep track of what materials a given entity has purchased. Apparently these are easily circumvented by certain shell company operations.

Legitimate companies (even small operations owned by individual entrerpeneurs), such as utilities, hospitals and companies inventing new kinds of technology for medicine, power generation, transportation, research or various other purposes, do acquire radioactive materials all the time.  Sometimes small amounts of radioactive materials are found in nature by individual explorers, especially in western state deserts or even caves.   Normally these materials are secured in university or corporate labs in a way that can be regulated. But most of this is low-level, not easily processed into HEU, which would worry DHS. There is even some uranium in southern Virginia, near Danville.

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A dirty bomb or radiation dispersion device would probably not cause many deaths or immediate serious injuries.  But it could destroy real estate values in an area (especially an urban area) for centuries and make a lot of “rich” people (like guess who) immediately homeless.  It isn’t hard to imagine the ideological appeal of using such a device for some radical groups –  long before radical Islam was in the news, the radical Left could be quite menacing, as I recall from my own underground spying in the early 1970s (as when I went to a meeting of the “People’s Party of New Jersey” in December 1972 in a slum in Newark, NJ, before my own “second coming”.  The radical (or pro “Communist”) Left was capable of threatening angry expropriation.

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(Published: Thursday, August 4, 2016 at 10:30 PM)

Sinclair Broadcast Group publishes sudden dire warning about future EMP or cyber attacks on US power grids

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On Tuesday, July 5, 2016, WJLA affiliate station WJLA broadcast (at about 5:55 PM EDT) a 4-minute report  (by Jeff Barnd) from the Sinclair Broadcast Group  (near Baltimore, in Hunt Valley) about the security threats to the three big power grids.  I could not find the story on Sinclair’s own site. WJLA gave the story the title “Next terror target: Our power grids?”

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The report correctly called the Texas grid as the “Texas Interconnect”.

The report suggested that the main threat would probably be a high altitude blast from a hostile state enemy, like North Korea (Alaska and the US Pacific Northwest, within a couple more years, possibly) or Iran (which could try an attack on Israel or even Sunni neighbors), throwing an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) wave(s) over a large area, perhaps most of the country in extreme cases.  The report said that ISIS probably does not have the expertise to mount such an attack.

The report also suggests that a major threat could come from cyber hacking of the grid.  Either a major blast or cyberwar could overload parts of the grid suddenly, because of the “overconnecteness” of power companies selling power for profit.

It’s less clear, to me at least, that an outside actor could even reach the power control systems through the public Internet.  It should not be possible to reach the grid control from my own computer, according to any mathematical topology.   However Ted Koppel’s book “Lights Out” may have been a factor in Sinclair’s report.

The report did not mention that smaller conventional flux weapons can produce localized EMP effects. It also did not mention solar storms.

The report described massive fatalities from prolonged electricity loss like those in the NBC series “Revolution” or the novel “One Second After”.

The report also suggested that an EMP attack might be followed by a physical attack on the homeland, like in the movies (like either “Red Dawn” movie).   That sounds more likely if the aggressor is Vladimir Putin himself.

It has been very unusual for mainstream media to discuss the EMP threat. Only Ted Cruz has mentioned so far, among presidential candidates, but I suspect Newt Gingrich would discuss it as a VP candidate.  When will Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton talk about this openly?

Could my own blogging (June 17) have drawn attention to the problem?  Maybe.  Some people at WJLA know me and I have discussed my concerns about it with their reporters  in person at least twice at “Your Voice, Your Future” forums in Arlington.

Important films on the topic include “American Blackout” (National Geographic Channel, aired Oct. 27, 2013, and CNN’s “We Were Warned: Cyber Shockwave” in February 2010.

To me, this topic deserves a lot more attention than something very narrow (affecting a cohort group close to me personally) like the North Carolina bathroom bills (but there is an iceberg or “slippery slope” effect even from small issues).  But throughout my adult life, many have resented my bringing up external issues and threats when I seem less inclined to live communally as part of a closely knit “helping hands” intentional community.   I’m still a lot more into winning arguments than counting partisan converts.

Anyway, “I told you so”.   But I’m not better than you, and couldn’t live with you in a 19th Century society.

(Published: Tuesday, July 5 at 9:45 PM EDT)

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Update: July 9

I got an email from a site called “Fiscal Beacon” reproducing what it claimed was a story from Fox News about the devastation that could come from a power grid attack, bringing ordinary Americans to their knees in a personal way (that would include me).  The email offered sales of a home solar power generator, so it has a doomsday prepper flavor.  I could not find the source online, but Fox does have a couple of stories about the FBI’s comments on the issue, especially in view of a hack in the Ukraine, here by Victoria Craig, as well as a later one in April by Bill Gertz. It’s possible I got the email in response to this blog post about the Sinclair story, but I could not verify its authenticity quickly.

Here is a video on a typical solar power generator, this one apparently in Utah and popular with LDS.

Update: July 16

The Wall Street Journal carries, on p. C5 of the weekend edition, a book review (by R. Tyler Priest) of the book “The Grid” by Gretchen Bakke, from Bloomsbury.  I will purchase the book and provide my own review soon.

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Update: July 26

The Wall Street Journal also published a major article by Rebecca Smith, “How America Could Go Dark” on July 14, with illustrations, and some focus on the physical attack in 2013 at PG&E’s Metcalf facility in the Silicon Valley, CA.  There is an LTE today about “unsecure technology”.

Donald Trump (and Newt Gingrich) should talk about power grid security; we need to get and work smart about this, folks

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The right wing, particularly the doomsday prepper crowd, puts out a lot of hype about the moral virtue of proving you can live off the grid and defend yourself in a more primitive society.  That certainly fits in to “their” idea about guns.  I do get “their” point and feel with “them” on this a bit.  But are we really prepared to say that we all need to be prepared to live like Neanderthal again, without the benefits of civilization?  No, I don’t think I have anything to offer in a world like that portrayed in NBC’s recent series “Revolution”.

Although the cause of the “blackout” in that miniseries is obscure and preposterous (and predicated on a lot of government conspiracy theory), there are indeed some serious threats to our way of life, based on our “no-return” dependence on technology. But I want to put out the idea we can “work smart” and put these threats behind us if we have the will, so that we don’t need the moral debates about doomday values.

Think about it.  Human beings would have the ability to deflect an asteroid.  Neanderthals, who sustained themselves low-tech for 100000 years, would not.  Orcas or dolphins, “non-human persons” who may be almost as smart as us (and who share among themselves with unconditional love more willingly than we do), still cannot.  We could, in theory, move to other planets (after a lot of social debate on who gets to go onto the “ark” and how to live on it) or solar systems before the Sun someday becomes a red giant.  There is virtue in developing technology.

Apart from direct use of nuclear weapons, the largest threat to our civilization “as we know it” is the loss of the power grids (there are three of them in the US – the Lone Star State has its own, thank you, Ted Cruz).  And there are three major threats:  rare but massive space storms, direct terror attack with electromagnetic pulse weapons, and, very likely, cyberwar.  I had summarized some of this May 6 as part of a general posting on infrastructure, but now let’s go through some of this in more detail.

All the threats have different sequences in which various destructive processes happen.  My own belief is that the most probable threat could come from nature in the way of a solar storm, rather than man in the way of pseudo-nuclear terrorism.

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Solar storms release particles that challenge the Earth’s magnetic field.  The largest events have several steps, the last of which is a coronal mass ejection  which can reach the Earth in about three days.  Only the very largest events can actually threaten the grids, whereas smaller blasts can compromise various satellites. The most recent major event caused a major outage in Quebec in 1989.  But the largest event in history would appear to have been the Carrington Event in 1859.  To have an incident like this, the Earth has to be in the “wrong place at the wrong time” in its journey around the sun, which itself rotates about every 25 days (source ).  Most solar CME’s actually miss the Earth.  Here is NASA’s site on solar storms.  There are many credible reports that the Earth missed a huge solar storm by about a week in July 2012 at about the time I, ironically,  was making a trip to look at mouintaintop removal in West Virginia, shortly after getting power and cable back from the East Coast derecho.  On my Book Review blog, I have discussions of several position papers on the threat of solar storms, here.

The biggest harm from solar storms seems to be the potential to overload major transformers.  In fact, this is the common denominator of much of the damage possible from any attack on the grids, whether natural or manmade.  I’ll come back to that.

The second major threat comes from electromagnetic pulse.  The most obvious way this could happen is a high-altitude nuclear blast , whether from a sovereign state (like North Korea on the US West Coast some day), or a terrorist group, possessing a scud-like missile with a warhead and hijacking a ship beyond the patrol of the Coast Guard or Navy. A good question is whether NORAD would stop most such attacks.

However, smaller non-nuclear flux weapons exist, and are used by the Army in deployment (like in clearing mine fields) and can even be viewed at the Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen MD (my 2010 visit).   YouTube has videos of how to make them, which I will not link to.  I presume that most of these would not work.  The Washington Times mentioned this topic once, at least, in 2009.  There was a controversial story about this possibility in Popular Mechanics shortly before 9/11.  I cover a lot this on a Blogger post in January 2016 here.

EMP involves a sequence of pulses different from solar storms but with similar, perhaps even  more destructive, end results.  An EMP attack could destroy personal electronics was well as disable power.  That adds to the case that perhaps people should make backups on optical media.  It would also prevent most newer cars from starting or operating. In fact, a rule of thumb after an unexpected power outage in fair weather is to make sure your car starts.  If it does not, it could mean and EMP event has occurred (fictitious setting). The first “Oceans Eleven” film (2001) presents an whimsical incident with a local flux device to knock out power during the “smash and grab” job, but the film incorrectly allows the Las Vegas lights to come back on in a few seconds.  They would not (and the outage would occur only in a small area with what is shown).

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Several books (and academic papers) have dealt with the EMP threat.  The most notorious is the 2009 novel “One Second After” by William Forstchen, with a foreword by Newt Gingrich and Bill Sanders), where a community near Linville N.C. (not far from the Brown Mountain area) experiences the blackout literally while a father is on the phone with the Pentagon. Over time, the community learns of the entire horror, which becomes ugly beyond belief (most of all for big city dwellers).  The novel has a sequel, and a possible film by Warner Brothers has been discussed. Another major (non-fiction) book dealing with all the threats is “A Nation Forsaken” by Michael Maloof.  It’s well to mention here that Gingrich (who may wind up supporting Donald Trump and could conceivably be his running mate) wrote about the EMP threat after 2012 derecho  There are numerous articles about his writings on this to come back to.  Trump has not mentioned his issue in the campaign ( I really think he could make waves by doing so now), but ironically Ted Cruz mentioned it to Wolf Blitzer the night before the Brussels attack.  My book review link for EMP is here.

The cyberwar threat has gotten a lot of attention recently, especially after the publication of Ted Koppel’s “Lights Out” in late 2015.  Ironically, Koppel talks about a lot of the other threats, too, quoting Janet Nepolitano as suggesting a major incident is almost certain to happen, and noting preparations at Cheyenne Mountain with Raytheon specifically (a company which was advertising heavily in the DC Metro at the time Koppel’s book was published).  I still wonder why there should be any way at all that a hacker (be he radical-Islamist, Russian, Chinese, North Korean) should be able to reach the grids through any topological connectedness at all.  They can’t reach the Pentagon.  The grids should have the same security.

The 2013 novel “Gridlock” by Byron L. Dorgan and David Hagberg.  There is a particular kind of malware introduced into the grid, which I don’t think could happen, but there are also physical attacks by firearms shooters on line repairmen, which I would imagine could happen and would be catastrophic in indirect consequences if it did.   Dorgan’s book brings up another kind of attack which has happened sporadically: sniper rifle attacks on power station infrastructure themselves (most of them rural), the largest of which was the Metcalf Sniper Attack near San Jose, CA in April 2013.

My own book review link for cyberthreats is here.

There is still another kind of possible threat associated specifically with nuclear power:  diversion of materials for possible manufacture of a dirty bomb.  This possibility was reported in Belgium after the Brussels attack.  The details are murky and will be left for a future column.

The biggest problems with our three US grids seem to fall into two areas.  One is that the economics of the utility industry (with which I am familiar from owning a lot of utility and energy stocks, which my father had invested in and which have been stable) depends on selling and buying power from remote locations, making the use of huge transformers important.  The other big problem, which Koppel does explain well in his book, is that most large transformers are manufactured overseas and transporting them over the continent is a huge problem.

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That’s where the idea locally generated energy comes up, which we already have seen with the development of solar and wind energy.  Solar energy can be generated on a personal rooftop and sold back to others locally.  But there is another idea which young scientist Taylor Wilson has suggested:  Power companies should have local backup underground fission generators with new underground and “liquid-based” designs, that he seems to imply would be almost terror-proof.  I mentioned his Ted Talk on this possibility in reviewing the movie “Catching the Sun” on May 24 here.  Wilson seems to have the backing of controversial technology investor Peter Thiel.  It makes since that Silicon Valley companies and investors (including Mark Zuckerberg) would have a direct interest in technologies to make the grid more resilient.

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At this point, I have to note what my own role could be relative to this problem.  I note that the major media has covered it very little (outside of Newt Gingrich in 2012).  I could help a Vox or a CNN cover it properly.  The American people (H. Ross Perot’s favorite buzzword) need to understand what is happening with this.

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In July, 2013 I did visit the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and took the summer-only afternoon tour (so a two-night stay was necessary).  I walked about this issue with some people on the tour there.  ORNL has published a lot of papers on these problems, but they still get little public attention.  This needs to change. (For what it’s worth, one of my best high school friends co-op-ed there while going to Virginia Tech in the 1960s.)

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I certainly recall the opposition to nuclear power over the years.  Taylor Wilson has his own introduction to a discussion (still in progress) of the long term effects of Fukushima here.  I do recall the sensational newspaper headlines about meltdown fears from Three Mile Island  (Pennsylvania), one weekend in 1979, shortly after I had moved to Texas, right off of convenience store rags while I was on a little weekend trip in the Hill Country.  Earlier, in the mid 1970s, when I was living in NYC but active in an Arizona-based group called Understanding, I recall a woman who wanted to drive a “Van-credible” caravan all over the country to spread opposition to nuclear power, and I remember questioning her about being a one-issue person, and taking only one side.  But some point people need focus and specific commitment to get anything done, even if it’s the wrong thing.

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I’ve briefly visited the grounds of two transformer companies, in Roanoke VA and Lynchburg VA, in 2013 and 2014.  The details are in this thread on Blogger.   I think we would be much better off if we did more of our grid hardware manufacturing on the Piedmont or in the Shenandoah Valley than in India or China.

Regarding the numerous US shooter or homemade device attacks, at least three of which are at least partially inspired by “radical Islamic terrorism” (I’m not afraid to use the phrase), yes, they are horrific, particularly in the way they personalize hate and political, social or even religious conflict on civilians “in the wrong place at the wrong time”.  But the use of small to larger unconventional WMD’s by enemies  is indeed possible (as in Maloof’s book), and if it ever happens even once, it changes the game forever.

Still, there is a lot we can start doing to protect our way of life that we haven’t talked about much yet.  Trump could talk about this.

(Published: Friday, June 17, 2016 at 2:45 PM EDT)