If a predictable, naturally occurring event could severely disrupt the electric-power grid and result in the death of perhaps as many as nine out of 10 Americans, do you think the electric industry would be doing everything possible to prevent such an outcome? Think again.
The truth is that despite seven federal studies that have found our bulk-power distribution system (universally known as “the grid”) could face catastrophic damage from the electromagnetic energy unleashed by intense solar flaring, the utilities seem determined to pretend there is no danger. Ditto their response to similar devastation that enemies could send our way by detonating one or more nuclear weapons in space high over the United States, through direct, physical attacks on transformers and the grid’s other critical nodes, or via cyberwarfare.
A case in point arose last week in the aftermath of a fictionalized, but very compelling, portrayal of a cyberattack that shut down the nation’s power supply coast-to-coast for 10 days. In response to the Oct. 27 airing of a National Geographic docudrama, “American Blackout,” a Florida electric company called Kissimmee Utility Authority issued a press release reassuring its customers that “there is no need to panic.”
In fact, there is plenty of reason, if not for outright panic, for immense concern and urgent corrective action.
Sadly, misleading the public also seems to be the principal purpose of GridEx II, a two-day exercise to be conducted next week by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) and 100 utilities nationwide, first responders, Homeland Security Department personnel and others. As the Kissimmee authority’s press spokesman put it: “[GridEx II] is designed to validate the readiness of the electric-utility industry to respond to a cyber incident, strengthen utilities’ crisis-response functions and provide input for internal-security improvements.”
In other words, “Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.” No systemic shortcomings. Certainly nothing that the utilities can’t handle by operational adjustments and “security-program improvements.” The governing assumption is that costly hardening investments are not just undesirable to the industry, they are unnecessary.
Unfortunately, such lowballing of the threat and stonewalling of corrective actions that would be effective against it are standard operating procedure for NERC and the industry more generally. Worse yet, by virtue of a sweetheart arrangement, NERC is both the electric utilities trade association (read, lobby) and the principal regulator for its member companies. How do you spell conflict of interest?
As the Langley Intelligence Group Network (Lignet.com) put it in a recent analysis: “If National Geographic’s docudrama is unrealistic about anything, it understates the threat by creating a scenario in which a nationwide blackout lasts just 10 days. Among seven U.S. government studies conducted since 2004, a consensus has emerged that the electric-power industry is not prepared to cope with man-made or natural [electromagnetic pulse] threats that could inflict a nationwide blackout lasting not days, but months or years.”
There is a certain irony in the fact that GridEx II will be simulating disruptions of the power supply in Mexico, as well as the United States and Canada. After all, as two prominent members of a new EMP Coalition working to prevent such disruptions — its honorary co-chairman and former director of Central Intelligence, R. James Woolsey, and Peter Pry, who previously served on the staff of the Congressional EMP Threat Commission — recently wrote at Family Security Matters: “On Sunday morning, Oct. 27, 2013, terrorists in Mexico’s Michoacan state blacked out the electric grid, leaving some 420,000 powerless and 13 dead.” A similar, although fortunately less destructive attack took place on April 16 at a substation near San Jose, Calif.
In short, this is, as the military says, “no drill.” If the electric industry uses GridEx II to obscure, rather than illuminate, the real and present dangers to its grid and all the critical infrastructures that rely upon it, NERC and its members will bear no small measure of responsibility for the horrific consequences if those vulnerabilities are exploited by our enemies or triggered by the sun.
In an important new video called “The Real American Blackout,” Mr. Pry identifies the assumptions that will determine whether this exercise is realistic, and therefore useful, or not. These include:
• Is the simulated blackout one that affects the entire continental United States, or is it a regional one?
• Are just a few million Americans affected by the blackout, or the whole population of the Lower 48?
• Are there nuclear and industrial accidents precipitated by the grid going down?
• Is the power outage of short duration, or is it protracted? In the latter case, large numbers of us will die, not just be inconvenienced. Will GridEx II model that danger in order to show what the stakes really are in having a nonresilient grid?
The North American Electric Reliability Corp. and its member utilities need to be part of the solution to this national catastrophe in the making, and not parties to it through misdirection of policymakers and the public, and resulting inaction.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. was an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. He is president of the Center for Security Policy (SecureFreedom.org), a columnist for The Washington Times and host of the nationally syndicated program Secure Freedom Radio.