GAFFNEY: Protecting the electric grid

Failure to harden the U.S. infrastructure invites catastrophe

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Americans have discovered that Silicon Valley and much of the San Francisco Bay area literally dodged a bullet — or more precisely, 110 of them — last April.

The grace of God and quick thinking by control-room operators narrowly averted disaster when a highly professional and disciplined attack on an electric substation outside San Jose, Calif., might have inflicted a protracted blackout on millions of us and our economy.

While information about this close call by unknown assailants (who are, presumably, still at large) has been known by some of us for months, it came to the public’s attention in a big way after The Wall Street Journal gave it front-page treatment last week.

Suddenly, the issue of the vulnerability of our bulk-power distribution system is no longer a matter of speculation or the exclusive preserve of specialists.

We are all on notice: Existential threats to our nation and lives are real and present dangers. We ignore them at our extreme peril.

As the media began addressing this issue in earnest for the first time, lawmakers have started expressing appropriate concern. Notably, four top Senate Democrats — Majority Leader Harry Reid, Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, and Energy Subcommittee Chairman Al Franken — have written regulators asking what is being done to prevent a recurrence of the San Jose sabotage, possibly with vastly more devastating effects.

They recognize that an America without electric power is not the America we know. It will not support either the society or the population we have today.

Unfortunately, the threat is not just from attackers such as those who damaged and nearly destroyed 17 essentially irreplaceable high-voltage transformers at the Metcalf substation. Enemies of this nation are well aware that the grid could be seriously disrupted, if not substantially destroyed.

Radio-frequency weapons can be assembled using readily available electronic equipment or devices marketed as electromagnetic pulse (EMP) testers. Such weapons could generate immense power loads in localized areas and cause catastrophic failures of the large transformers like Metcalf’s, which make up the backbone of the grid.

The U.S. electric grid, like other critical infrastructure, is susceptible to cyberwarfare that could commandeer its computerized control systems and other electronics systems.

At the direction of our enemies, such devices could be used to overload transformers with an effect similar to the Stuxnet worm’s destructive hijacking of Iranian centrifuges a few years back.

The most efficient way to devastate the U.S. grid, however, would be to detonate a nuclear weapon high over the country. That would unleash a powerful series of electromagnetic pulses (EMP), with lethal effect on unprotected microcircuits, other electronics, transformers and the critical infrastructures they support over large areas or even most of the country, depending on the height of the burst.

Such attacks could truly create, to quote former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “a world without America” — something he declared was not only “desirable, but achievable.” Nuclear weapons for Iran are now, thanks to President Obama’s recent deal, closer than ever to making this boast credible.

Last Thursday, at an event in Washington sponsored by EMPAct America and the Reserve Officers Association, Sen. Ted Cruz and former Central Intelligence Agency Director R. James Woolsey made clear that the threat of an EMP attack from Iran must be taken seriously.

Of particular concern is the possibility than an Iranian missile could be launched for this purpose from a ship off our coast, undetected and in a manner that would make it difficult to determine who was responsible for the catastrophe that would ensue.

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