Since 9/11, some national security observers, generally on conservative blogs and publications, have intermittently warned Americans that they could face catastrophic destruction of the power grid and of technological civilization though either extreme solar storms with the accompanying coronal mass ejections, or electromagnetic pulse’s generated by terrorists or rogue states, usually from high altitude nuclear detonations or certain other (non nuclear) magnetic flux weapons used by the US military now in deployments. In retrospect, it’s interesting to recall at Popular Mechanics story on the threat published one week before 9/11 in 2001.
Occasionally, conservative politicians and engineers have testified to Congress on the issue, most notably Newt Gingrich, who spoke about this in March, as I recall. He also wrote a foreword to the 2009 novel “One Second After” by William Forstschen. Around 2012, the National Academy of Sciences and Oak Ridge National Laboratory both published sobering studies on these issues (my reviews). I actually visited ORNL in 2013. It has also been reported that Earth had a narrow miss from a huge coronal mass ejection in July 2012. PBS Frontline apparently covered these threats to the grids (in the US, there are three major power grids) with three brief reports.
The major media has not shown any consistency in willingness to report on this problem. However, very recently a Fox station in Chicago reported bluntly on North Korea’s apparent threat to use an EMP weapon as a “gift” to the United States, shortly after DPRK had tested what some believe was a thermonuclear weapon (fusion hydrogen bomb), right while the US is dealing with major hurricanes. As I look through the literature, I see sporadic reports in the past, including one piece in 2015 in the Wall Street Journal that seems to have anticipated North Korea’s progress with its missiles. Another environmentally oriented article makes the interesting point that the use of solar energy would help decentralize power distribution and make the grid harder to attack.
The most emphatic statement on the problem may be Ted Koppel’s late 2015 book “Lights Out”, but Koppel, after exploring EMP, focuses most of his attention on cyberthreats.
Sinclair broadcasting in Baltimore created a couple of interviews on the problem in August 2016 and, along with Fox, sponsored a forum from a Green Bay WI studio; but owned-station WJLA, while advertising it, did not air it (on its own News Channel 8). I covered that on this blog before.
Why has the media waffled in talking about this problem? Is there some kind of “don’t ask don’t tell” policy to protect the stock market? I can imagine the conspiracy theories. But a couple points stand out.
One point is the fact that the most obvious threat, a high altitude H-bomb, has never been carried out, even though all reputable science supports the idea that the threat is real. (There were major problems in Hawaii in 1962 after an early H-bomb test.) Such an event has been viewed as unthinkable, although North Korea’s recent bad behavior sounds very menacing indeed. No one has said if it is technologically easier for an enemy to explode a nuclear device at high altitude than to aim it at a city and have it survive re-entry.
Another reason is that the media has been more focused on cyber threats, such as one carried out against Ukraine in 2014. Now, the Pentagon’s core systems are unreachable to external hackers, so it’s fair to ask, should not the same thing hold for an electric utility? Of course, an inside job saboteur is possible. But I fear that there probably does exist a topologically connected Internet path from my computer to the grid, even though there should not be. (Yes, I studied topology in graduate school in the 1960s, before getting drafted.)
A more subtle reason for media reticence is that the threats to the gird from EMP and solar storms need to be understood as a threat to suddenly and increasingly technology-dependent civilization, perils which can actually be decomposed into separate components and individual threats (including cyber) which individually may be more likely.
The main components are E1, E2, and E3. The E3 is the prolonged magnetic pulse which can overload and destroy transformers. It occurs (in slightly different forms) with both extreme solar storms and thermonuclear fusion weapons. Major utilities don’t talk about this very much (even to their shareholders), but recently some of them have made vague statements that they are working on installing technologies that would enable transformers to survive the overloads. The Foundation for Resilient Societies has tweeted that the necessary changes would cost about $5 per American, or about $2 billion, which would sound affordable.
E2 is more like a lightning strike and is more easily defended. But E1 is what fries modern consumer electronics and many newer car ignitions. It appears that an E1 is possible from a very small fission nuclear device, or from some kinds of magnetic flux guns possessed by the US Army for grand war (like for disabling IUD’s). E1 events might be created locally by a saboteur and have effect only in a small area. The concerns expressed by James Woolsey about North Korea’s Shining Star satellite probably relate to an E1 device without E3.
I visited a Best Buy store today an asked a clerk about this. He admitted he had heard this question from other walk-in customers before, and recommended a DVD-R optical storage pack (about $25) and writer drive (about $25). This is now recommended for personal storage (for example, documents, music if one composes, etc). Modern USB thumb drives and solid state “hard drives’ are supposed to be able to resist ordinary magnets (and hopefully nearby electric transmission towers which would induce magnetic fields), but they would not survive actual E1 pulses. I immediately made an optical backup of my most critical files when I got home, after installing the Cyberlink software from a DVD.
Cloud companies are supposed to maintain multiple copies of backups in different data centers around the U.S. for redundancy, which would provide reasonable protection against regional attacks. (A lot of these backup servers are in the North Carolina Piedmont, it seems.) But it’s a good question whether data centers could construct Faraday-like protections for the consumer data in their care.
Since 9/11, there has been a lot of attention to the possibility of terrorist or saboteur-introduced or built small nuclear weapons (as opposed to the rifle, car, and pressure cooker devices that have been used), or radioactivity dispersion devices (“dirty bombs”), which could destroy and make inhabitable a lot of real estate even if they didn’t kill people. These have not been used. But it is well to remember that during the 1980s, there was some (not widely discussed) fear that rogue communist elements could carry out attacks, which contributed to the idea of developing a “civilian reservist force” which was sometimes discussed in Sunday newspapers (pre-Internet), at least in Texas. Communism was responsible for personalized terrorism in the 1970s (Patty Hearst), but radical Islam has caught the focus of such attention since 9/11. Recently, we’ve had to recognize the “progress” of North Korea with its WMD’s, which seems shocking now but which older articles show had been expected. Nevertheless, the Trump administration must seek the best intelligence and wisdom from it military and civilian sources and Congressional leadership in dealing with the challenges of what sounds like an unpredictable, combative and antagonistic regime in North Korea, which may quickly be able to wreak more havoc with American civilians than we would have believed even a few months ago. So the mainstream media needs to really do the extensive fact-checking on this issue and not behave as if it were “fake news”. I’m willing to go to work on this myself.
This topic sounds like it deserves a presidential address to the nation, but it’s hard for me to imagine Donald Trump’s addressing this one publicly. Maybe he’ll surprise us, and not just on Twitter, before it’s too late.
(Posted: Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 at 10:45 PM EDT)
Update: Friday, Sept. 8, 10 AM EDT
I found two very alarming opinions in the Washington Post this morning. One is an editorial warning of cyberattack on the power grid, here. The piece discusses Dragonfly malware and spearfishing.
Another is an op-ed by a former (2002, Bush era) acting CIA director that North Korea can launch nuclear weapons on the United States now, here. The piece seems aimed at discouraging Trump from initiating a pre-emptive strike now in response to more underground or missile tests. But what it North Korea detonates a device over the Pacific and demands that the US withdraw completely from protecting South Korea? The Domino Theory from my own days dealing with the draft in the Vietnam era suggests this can happen. The most cynical interpretations of this idea could mean that China could want DPRK to attack (E3) so that China can walk in and take over the US! Incidentally, it is well to remember that DPRK has every incentive to fire a missile test while the U.S. is preoccupied with its own natural disasters (like this weekend).
In all these discussions, the confidence in NORAD and “Star Wars” defense becomes very important as part of the deterrent.
Oddly, neither of these pieces talks about EMP. It may be easier for an enemy to detonate a missile at high altitude than make it survive re-entry. Has anyone looked at this idea?
The Boston Herald now has an article similar to Fox’s.
Related is the video review of mine.