President Obama is, with much fanfare, unveiling today billions of dollars worth of government grants to launch the so-called “smart grid” — a much-needed upgrade to the nation’s obsolescing electrical power distribution system.
We are told that this effort will make the grid far more efficient and compatible with America’s future energy needs. Unfortunately, unless Team Obama acts quickly, it will build into the new grid an Achilles’ heel that will render the system not “smart,” but catastrophically defective.
We know that the existing electrical distribution system has an acute vulnerability to a phenomenon known as electromagnetic pulse (EMP). If its power lines are subjected to a burst of intense energy perhaps a million times the strength of the most powerful radio signal on earth, they will — according to a blue-ribbon congressional commission that has studied the matter for years — serve as highly efficient antennae conducting the pulse onward.
Ultimately, it will reach at least some of the 300 or so transmitters that are the backbone of today’s grid, severely damaging if not destroying them altogether.
Until the transformers are brought back on line, a process that could take years, distribution of electricity will be disrupted. Without electricity, other infrastructures vital to the functioning of our modern society, including those that provide transportation, food, water, sewage, medical treatment, telecommunications and financial services, will also be unavailable.
The cumulative effect would be almost unimaginably horrible. Life as we know it, particularly in urban settings, will become unsustainable. According to Dr. William Graham, President Reagan’s science adviser and the eminent physicist who chaired the congressional EMP Threat Commission, estimates that within a year of such an EMP event, 9 out of 10 Americans would be dead.
Unfortunately, we are going to be subjected to such an event. For one thing, several of our actual or potential enemies, including the North Koreans, Iranians, Russians, and Chinese, are familiar with the potential for, and capable of inflicting, a strategic EMP attack on this country.
This can most efficiently be done via a ballistic missile-delivered nuclear detonation high in space over the United States. When Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad endlessly declares that a “world without America is not only desirable but achievable,” chances are that what he has in mind is a United States reduced to a pre-industrial society by such a nuclear strike.
But even if one or the other of these adversaries does not exploit our vulnerability to electromagnetic pulse, we will be subjected to this effect at some point in the next few years. The source will not be man-made but of natural origins:
Roughly every 100 years, intense solar flares precipitate geomagnetic storms that, when sent in the direction of the earth, bathe it in a form of EMP.
The question is not whether our electrical grid will be assaulted in this way. Rather, it is a question of when — and with how devastating an effect. NASA and NOAA recently predicted that the next such event will occur by 2013. All other things being equal, the effect will be nothing short of catastrophic.
If President Obama is truly intent on making America’s power distribution system smarter, he should start with implementing recommendations of the EMP Threat Commission about ways in which the existing grid can be made more robust. For example, it appears that for a relatively modest investment (measured in tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars), we could EMP-harden the U.S. inventory of transformers which is worth tens of billions of dollars and effectively irreplaceable (as there are none manufactured in this country and delivery of a new one takes at least a year).
Mr. Obama must also ensure that the smart grid he is promoting protects against electromagnetic pulse from the get-go. Otherwise, the new grid will rely on devices that, while capable of far more efficient management of the distribution of electrical power, are inherently even more susceptible to disruption by EMP than is the case today.
Doing otherwise would not only be wasteful of the billions in investments that the Obama administration intends to make to realize the promise of the smart grid, it would also be the height of irresponsibility, knowing what we do about the threat from either hostile powers or the sun.
As Mr. Obama touts his initiative today, he should make clear whether he intends to pursue it in a way worthy of the name, or whether the smart grid will prove to be done in such a dumb way as to compound our present, perilous vulnerability.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and host of the nationally syndicated program “Secure Freedom Radio.”
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