The Next Blackout

Despite its inherent illogic, the notion that last week’s massive, cascading electrical blackout was a “wake-up” call seems now to have become as much a part of the political landscape as has the effort to assign blame for this costly man-made disaster.

The question occurs, however: Exactly to what is it that we have awakened?

The obvious answer is that there is an acute and long-neglected need to upgrade the Nation’s power grid. Since last Thursday’s crisis, much of the finger-pointing has been about who saw this need most clearly and how many years ago and who was most responsible for so little being done about it. Let us stipulate that there is enough blame to go around and that a concerted, multi-year (if not multi-decade) and bipartisan effort is going to be required to modernize the Niagara Falls grid and the rest of the U.S. electrical infrastructure.

This is, of course, much easier said than done. The costs associated with such an initiative have been estimated to start at nearly $60 billion. A federal government in deficit is reluctant to strap on such an expenditure; energy companies will surely pass their share on to consumers. Critics of the U.S. liberation of Iraq have, predictably, seized already on the irony that American tax-dollars are restoring and upgrading the Iraqi electrical system when they could, and it is argued should, be spent on doing the same for ours.

In the final analysis, we will pay as a nation — one way or the other — what has to be paid in order to try to prevent a repetition of the calamitous Blackout of 2003. This will become ever more self-evident as the American and Canadian costs associated with that power disruption are tallied and the need to avoid its recurrence is seen to be an absolute economic, as well as political, necessity.

The second thing to which we better have awakened is the possibility that was on everyone’s mind as the lights went out across much of the northern tier of the United States and Canada’s most populous cities: Could terrorists have perpetrated this disaster? And, if so, was the blackout but the first blow in a lethal one-two punch?

The good news is that this episode apparently was not the work of Osama bin Laden or his ilk. The bad news is that, given the extensive vulnerabilities of the U.S. power grid — for example, the vast numbers of unguarded power-line towers that snake across the landscape — it has only been a matter of time before someone decided to exploit them. And, having witnessed over the past few days what the immensely destructive effect of even minor disruptions of that system could be, is there any doubt that, from now on, the terrorists’ target lists will surely include attacks on our critical infrastructure?

To make matters worse, those attacks need not be in a physical form. Computers whose second-by-second control of the distribution flow of electricity has been shown to indispensable to the grid’s functioning can also be subjected to “cyber warfare.” Unfortunately, the same is true of other parts of our critical infrastructure. Even if the power didn’t go off, water and sewage systems, gas pipelines, transportation, telecommunications, etc. could also be targeted and seriously disrupted.

We had better be awakened, though, to one other, particularly ominous prospect: Determined terrorists could inflict lasting, if not actually permanent, damage on the United States’ electrical and other computer-based systems by employing small nuclear or non-nuclear devices that generate what is known as electro-magnetic pulse (EMP). The short, intense spike of energy that these EMP weapons create can do irreparable harm to electronic devices (even those not in use, such as replacement microcircuits, chips and memory boards in warehouses) unless expensive measures have been taken to shield them. It is believed that human beings and other forms of life would not be directly harmed by such a burst of EMP.

No one can say with certainty at the moment how devastating or widespread the effects of an EMP strike might be. The U.S. military, which used to pay serious attention to the question, largely stopped doing so after a moratorium was imposed in 1992 on all nuclear testing (including that done for EMP effects). Since then, the vulnerability of the armed forces’ satellites, communications gear and other hardware has become largely a matter of conjecture, if it is addressed at all.

Matters are infinitely worse with respect to civilian electronic equipment, essentially none of which was designed with the costly features that would protect against EMP. Today, the best that can be said is that the extent and duration of future EMP-induced blackouts would depend on whether the emitter generates a small or large pulse, and whether it is detonated at ground-level or from high altitudes. Under a worst-case — but not implausible — scenario, a large, ballistic missile-delivered EMP weapon could within seconds reduce half the country to pre-industrial age conditions for many months, if not years.

Thanks to the tenacity of one of Capitol Hill’s few bonafide scientists, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (Republican of Maryland), who has long warned of the EMP threat, a blue-ribbon commission led by President Reagan’s science advisor, Dr. William Graham, is now conducting a congressionally mandated study to assess this danger. If anything, the recent grid failure adds urgency to the completion of the Graham Commission’s work.

As the Nation rouses itself to address the lessons learned from last week’s blackout, it better focus not only on how to avoid a repetition of the last calamity but also on the possibly vastly more serious blackout next time.

Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. is the President of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for the Washington Times.

(This update courtesy of the Center for Security Policy.)

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