Amidst all the congressional to-ing and fro-ing associated with the president's controversial health care, cap-and-trade and "hate crimes" initiatives, it would be easy for most legislators to overlook a hearing the House Homeland Security Committee has scheduled for this afternoon.
If Congress fails to address the subject of that hearing, however, it literally will not matter whether the government addresses any of those other, disproportionately prominent agenda items.
The title of the hearing "Securing the Modern Electric Grid from Physical and Cyber Attacks" fails to communicate the magnitude of the danger, and the imperative for urgent corrective action. One thing is sure, though: By the time the lead-off witness, William Graham, is finished testifying, no one present will be under any illusion on either score.
Mr. Graham formerly served as President Reagan's Science Adviser and in recent years has chaired the congressionally mandated Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (better known as the EMP Commission).
This panel, made up of many of the nation's most experienced and eminent scientists, has produced several reports that should have jarred our leaders into action on the EMP threat long before now.
After all, the commission has concluded that the present electric grid is profoundly vulnerable to massive surges of electromagnetic energy. It has summed up the magnitude of the problem such surges could cause to the United States with a single, shocking word: "Catastrophic."
This prospect arises from the fact today's electrical infrastructure has not been "hardened" to make it more resilient against EMP effects. Thus, if key components of the grid were subjected to one or more pulses of electromagnetic energy, the EMP Commission concluded at least some of them would be susceptible to extensive damage or destruction.
Catastrophe would ensue as a result of a ripple-effect from widespread disruptions in the supply of electrical power to other infrastructures that depend on it to operate. For example, food distribution, transportation, telecommunications, medical services and access to clean water and management of sewage would be affected almost immediately and for long periods.
Matters would be worsened by the likelihood that electronic devices so integral to modern life would also be damaged or destroyed, making reconstitution of the status quo ante profoundly problematic even if, somehow, power could be rapidly restored. And, under present circumstances at least, that won't happen.
The EMP Commission has warned that the cumulative effect of such disruptions would be to transform almost immediately our 21st century superpower into a pre-industrial nation, unable to provide for its own people let alone afford security to others. Mr. Graham estimates that within a year, 9 in 10 Americans would be dead, as the population returns to what can be sustained by a subsistence society.
The Homeland Security Committee will hear tomorrow that this unimaginable horror can be triggered by a scenario examined at length by the Commission on the EMP Threat namely, a ship-launched, ballistic missile-delivered nuclear weapon detonated outside the atmosphere high above the United States. Russia and China already have the capability to engage in such attacks. The North Koreans and Iranians are busily trying to acquire it.
Despite this reality, opponents of missile defenses that could prevent such an attack have downplayed the associated risk, and thereby contributed to the perpetuation of our present vulnerability.
It turns out that EMP can also be inflicted by the sun. The last time a "great geomagnetic storm" unleashed such energy on the Earth (thereafter known as a Carrington Event for the British scientist who first detected it) was Sept. 1, 1859. A NASA release issued in May, described how the solar flare "electrified transmission cables, set fires in telegraph offices, and produced northern lights so bright that people could read newspapers by their red and green glow."
At the time, of course, America was not today's massively wired and electricity-dependent nation. The NASA paper went on to note that, "A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that if a similar storm occurred today, it could cause $1[trillion] to $2 trillion in damages to society's high-tech infrastructure and require four to ten years for complete recovery." According to NASA, such a storm will happen possibly as soon as May 2013.
The Homeland Security Committee hearing will take testimony that makes plain one other frightening reality: Unfortunately, our unrobust electrical infrastructure is also vulnerable to non-EMP disruptions.
Cyber warfare has already been unleashed on the computers that form the central nervous system of today's grid. To date, the effect has been a nuisance. If we don't take corrective action, cyber attacks in the future could be as devastating as the "man-caused disaster" of an EMP attack or the naturally occurring variant.
The good news, as the committee will also establish, is that billions of dollars have been allocated in the economic stimulus bill for upgrading the grid. Doing so in a way that builds in the sort of resiliency to EMP and cyber warfare that we so clearly need is a no-brainer and should be eminently doable, provided appropriate priority is assigned to that use of the already appropriated funds.
The alternative is an absolutely predictable and avoidable catastrophe.