President Trump’s “Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses” (March 26, 2019) — designed to protect electric grids and other life sustaining critical infrastructures from potentially catastrophic blackout by manmade or natural EMP — is in danger of being undermined by electric utility lobbyists and non-experts at the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
For example, an excellent report by the U.S. Air Force Electromagnetic Defense Task Force (USAF EDTF), “EMP Threats to America’s Power Grid” (August 2019), exposes deeply flawed analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a utility lobby. EPRI erroneously contends EMP from nuclear attack or solar superstorms would be no worse than a hurricane.
Irresponsibly, DOE endorses EPRI’s junk science report.
EPRI’s contention “long-term blackouts would be unlikely due to limited damage to large power transformers” is not supported by EPRI research. Nuclear high-altitude EMP burst parameters used in EPRI research were not optimal to produce effects, and large transformers have not yet been tested under realistic full load conditions.
EPRI’s research also has addressed neither high-frequency E1 EMP and low-frequency E3 EMP effects on generator stations, the full suite of grid communication and control systems, nor electric distribution systems.
EPRI even tries to rewrite history, creating a fictional past where “the Departments of Energy and Defense assessed the potential impacts of a HEMP attack on the electric grid” would be small. No such assessment has been performed by DOD.
DOE was not created until 1977, by which time EMP science and effects were well established by DOD’s Air Force Weapons Lab and Defense Nuclear Agency. The role of DOE and its predecessors was primarily limited to providing the gamma ray output of nuclear weapons for use by the DOD in calculating EMP fields.
The Department of Defense has been developing and implementing the technology to test and protect military systems from the effects of EMP since 1962, when the data from the FISHBOWL series of exo-atmospheric nuclear tests revealed much higher levels of E1 EMP fields than had been predicted.
Decades ago, DOD found that semiconductor electronics in operation are particularly susceptible to damage from E1 EMP, and implementing adequate protection requires both hardening and testing under operational conditions.
DOD’s landmark 1977 “The Effects of Nuclear Weapons” that declassified much EMP research warned EMP can inflict “severe damage” and the “consequences could be serious for any system that relies on…commercial electric power generation and distribution systems, telecommunications…radio, radar, television, telephone, and telegraph systems, and electronic computers.”
In 1981, to warn the public, DOD scientists informed William Broad’s 3-part series published in Science “Nuclear Pulse (I): The Chaos Factor” subtitled “A single nuclear blast high above the United States could shut down the power grid and knock out communications from coast to coast.”
In 2010, DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission published several excellent reports assessing a nuclear EMP attack or solar superstorm could destroy hundreds of transformers and inflict a protracted nationwide blackout.
The congressionally mandated EMP Commission has rebutted other deeply erroneous “rosy-hued” analysis of the EMP threat by EPRI, the Edison Electric Institute, and North American Electric Reliability Corporation in our unclassified reports available at www.firstempcommission.org
The USAF EDTF rightly faults the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for relying on “engineering judgment” (which often amounts to wishful thinking) instead of EMP testing to ensure the safety of nuclear reactors:
“EMP tests conducted on actual equipment show that modeling can be wrong by orders of magnitude. Suggest actual physical testing. USAF nuclear command and control facilities and missile silos are often underground and even covered by tens of feet of concrete and metal rebar. This does not negate the need for EMP hardening. Such facilities are hardened to careful military specifications.”
The EMP Commission Chairman’s Report recommends that “the President direct the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to launch a crash program to harden the active nuclear power reactors and all spent fuel storage facilities against nuclear EMP attack. Even if the reactors and storage facilities survive an initial EMP attack, they currently are not able to restart generating power if there is no electric power available on its grid, and they typically only have enough emergency power to cool reactors and spent fuel facilities for several days, after which they would ‘go Fukushima’ spreading radioactivity over adjacent areas.”
Moreover: “The NRC has regulatory power to compel the nuclear power industry to incorporate nuclear reactor design features to make nuclear power safe…failure to…mandate protection from EMP…[risks] the safety of…people living in the vicinity of these reactors.”
For the U.S. electric power infrastructure, widespread failure of control electronics for generation, transmission, and distribution systems could cause long-term power outages. Overall, much work remains to be done to test and protect U.S. critical electrical infrastructure systems.
The White House should heed the U.S. Air Force Electromagnetic Defense Task Force:
“EDTF…recommends that the Congressional EMP Commission Reports, supported by real-world data, be used by government and industry as the most accurate assessment of the high-altitude EMP threat. EDTF recommends that the Congressional EMP Commission’s recommendations be implemented.”
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. He served on the Congressional EMP Commission as chief of staff, the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA. He is author of "Blackout Wars." For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
Dr. William R. Graham served as Chairman of the Congressional EMP Commission, President Reagan’s Science Advisor, ran NASA, and on the defense science team that discovered the EMP phenomenon and developed protective measures.
Ambassador R. James Woolsey was Director of Central Intelligence.
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