Defense systems that depend on the commercial electric grid are vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse attacks and solar storms that could seriously damage the nation’s infrastructure, experts from the Homeland Security and Defense departments told a House Homeland Security subcommittee.
The likelihood and the effects of such an event have been the subject of debate, and legislation that would require defenses against them is stalled in the House.
Major military weapons systems and nuclear assets are hardened against EMP events, but “DOD is heavily dependent on the commercial electric grid,” Michael Aimone, director of DOD Business Enterprise Integration, told the subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who testified as a witness at the Sept. 12 hearing, said Russia and several other countries are developing an offensive EMP capability, but there is little protection against such attacks on the commercial grid. He called for installing hardware protection for the most critical elements.
”The major vulnerability we have right now is damage to our major transformers,” which could put parts of the national grid out of operation for years, Franks said. Operational procedures cannot provide timely response, he added, but equipment called neutral phase blockers could provide cost-effective and automatic protection from surges that could cause damage.
Current regulations do not require this protection, however, and industry has been slow to adopt it, although Chris Beck, president of the Electric Infrastructure Security Council, said there are no significant technical or financial barriers to deploying it.
Electromagnetic pulse is an electrical disruption that can be caused by high-altitude nuclear explosions or naturally by solar activities such as flares. Studies by the congressionally established EMP Commission and by Oak Ridge National Laboratory have concluded that in a worst-case scenario a serious event could leave large portions of the nation’s power grid out of service for four to 10 years by causing physical damage to transformers and other equipment. Communications systems and individual electrical devices also could be at risk.