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Behind the power curve

Power grids at risk; plans lacking

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Along with the Cascadia Subduction Zone - or CSZ - and its potential for a 9.0 earthquake and the tagalong tsunami, add an Electromagnetic Pulse - or EMP - to the worry list.

EMPs are bursts of energy caused by either a nuclear blast or a massive solar storm.

Both events trigger destructive voltage spikes in electronic devices that render many of them useless - from power transformers to typical household electronics.

If what comes from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean doesn't create worry, what can come from above most certainly will.

In an attempt to meet the EMP threat, Washington and 17 other states are working to protect their power grids.

In 2015, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) initiated a study to create a plan of dealing with an EMP. Results are pending.

While a great deal of work has been done locally to prepare for a 9.0 earthquake and attendant tsunami, there appears to be much to be done on both the national and state levels to withstand a natural or manmade EMP.

American and Russian scientists learned about EMPs in July 1962, when this country detonated a 1.4-megaton thermonuclear device 248.5 miles above Johnston Island, a sliver of land in the Pacific Ocean.

The resulting EMP field affected lights, telephone and radio communications in Hawaii 900 miles away.

The point is that a nuclear- or solar-triggered EMP is a lethal threat to the nation's power grid.

To meet the challenge, Congress in 2008 created an EMP commission. Its intent was to lay the groundwork for the Departments of Homeland Security and Energy to work together.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled, "A Devastating Threat We're Not Ready For," it's clear that the two departments have not done their homework.

"The two departments have not even identified the elements of the electrical infrastructure that most need protecting," writes Joe Colangelo, the article's author.

The costs of procrastination are staggering.

In 2013, Lloyd's of London calculated that a solar powered EMP would cause extended blackouts for 40 million Americans and cost as much as $2.6 trillion in lost economic productivity.

The following year, Dr. Peter Pry, the executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, told Congress that EMPs pose "existential threats that could kill nine of ten Americans through starvation, disease and societal collapse."

On March 9 of this year, Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea, displayed a nuclear warhead with which he threatens to strike the U.S. and its allies.

In an April 24, 2016 Washington Times story, former CIA Director James Woolsey and Pry write that the "Great Leader's" threat is real; that North Korea can in fact strike the American mainland with a nuclear warhead.

The article goes on to point out that presently, there are two North Korean satellites in south polar orbits, an area where American defenses are limited.  

Both satellites, if armed with nuclear warheads, could create an "electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that could blackout the U.S. electric grid for months or years, thereby killing millions," the two authors conclude.

On the other hand, a massive solar flare, or geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) can be just as devastating.

In February 2014, in a paper published in Space Weather, physicist Pete Riley calculates that there is a 12 percent chance of a massive solar eruption and its accompanying EMP striking the Earth in the next decade.

While there are some differences between nuclear and solar-generated EMPs, the cascade of damages to the nation's infrastructure will obliterate power grids, telecommunications, banking and finance, fuel/energy infrastructure, transportation, food, water, emergency services and space systems.

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