Can America’s Power Grid Survive an Electromagnetic Attack?
The threat of nuclear war with North Korea has raised the stakes when it comes to defending against EMPs.
Last month, federal agencies and utility executives held GridEx IV, a biennial event where officials responsible for hundreds of local utilities game out scenarios in which North America’s power grid could fail. Potential calamities both physical and cyber are reviewed, with participant responses analyzed to better prepare for any future attack.
This year, the event took on an added urgency given growing concern with a weapon straight out of the Cold War: an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, emanating from a nuclear blast—specifically, one delivered by a North Korean missile or satellite detonated miles above the Earth. Though GridEx IV didn’t pose this exact scenario, industry experts concede there’s no clear plan to deal with it.
An EMP could damage electronic circuits over large areas, depending on the configuration of the weapon and how high it was detonated, though there’s disagreement over how effective such a tactic would be. Scientists also emphasize that a nuclear bomb that hits a ground target is much more worrisome. Nevertheless, with North Korea’s increasingly successful missile and warhead tests in mind, Congress moved to renew funding for the Commission to Assess the Threat to the U.S. from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
In September, the commission’s top officials warned lawmakers that the threat of an EMP attack from a rogue nation “becomes one of the few ways that such a country could inflict devastating damage to the U.S.”
GridEx IV participants said the use of an EMP, however improbable, has been very much on their radar. Lisa Barton, executive vice president of Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power Co.’s transmission unit, said the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry research arm, was analyzing the risk. An EPRI report published this week emphasized that widespread damage was indeed possible from such an attack.
“It’s certainly more about North Korea now,” said Rob Manning, vice president of transmission and distribution infrastructure for EPRI. “In the past it was more about multiple potential threats.”
The new challenge comes as the industry grapples with a host of costs tied to keeping the lights on in extreme weather, and bouncing back when there’s an outage. In the past five years, Superstorm Sandy, tornadoes, hurricanes and intense cold have all tested grids in unprecedented fashion. Regulators are seeking ways to improve reliability and resiliency, including a potential multibillion dollar payout to coal and nuclear generators to keep plants online as grids add gas, wind and solar.
John Norden, director of operations at ISO New England Inc., which manages a grid serving six states, said the industry is unprepared for a full-scale electromagnetic attack. The power industry doesn’t really have any standards or tools to handle “black sky events’’ such as an extreme cyber or EMP attack, or even conventional war, Norden said at a recent conference.