With very little attention, the federal government is preparing for the possibility of a man-made electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack or a solar geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) that potentially would create a nationwide blackout for weeks or months.
Recent news reports indicate that at least three federal agencies are making contingency plans for such events.
The EMP Commission to Congress reported that if the power grid was down for a full year, upwards of 90 percent of the population would die, either from starvation, sickness or civil unrest.
The most public action was taken by the Pentagon, which has decided to move its command center for North America into an EMP-proof bunker. In April it was revealed that the headquarters for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the US Northern Command were moving back into an underground facility inside Cheyenne Mountain outside Colorado Springs.
“Because of the very nature of the way that Cheyenne Mountain is built, it’s EMP-hardened,” NORAD and North Command’s top officer, Admiral William Gortney, told the press. “It wasn’t really designed to be that way, but the way it was constructed makes it that way.”
The Cheyenne Mountain Complex was built in the 1960s to coordinate US and Canadian defenses during the Cold War. The Pentagon will spend $1.5 billion to upgrade the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, which was closed in 2004, Defense One reported. Facilities inside the mountain include sleeping quarters, a water supply and a power station. All US military forces presumably would be directed from the facility in the event of an EMP attack or a solar storm (GMD incident) that took out the power grid.
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“These facilities and the entire complex of NORAD and NORTHCOM represent the nerve center of defense for North America,” former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a 2013 speech at Cheyenne Mountain.
Electric Grid Commission Concerned?
Meanwhile, in May the agency that oversees America’s electrical grid, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC, created a plan to address solar storms. The five members of FERC voted to approve a standard that would require all electrical transmission systems to have contingency plans for GMDs. A GMD in 1859 known as the Carrington Event destroyed the most advanced technology of the day, the telegraph.
“These events are considered to be ‘high impact, low frequency’ events, but can have potentially severe, widespread effects on reliable grid operation, including blackouts and damage to critical or vulnerable equipment,” a press release from FERC read.
FERC is asking electric companies to “assess the vulnerability of their systems to a ‘benchmark GMD event,’ which NERC [North American Electric Reliability Corporation] described as a ‘one-in-100-year’ event. If an entity does not meet certain performance requirements based on the assessments, it must develop a plan to achieve the requirements.
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“Given the limited historic geomagnetic data and because scientific understanding of such disturbances is still evolving, the Commission is concerned about how a benchmark GMD event is defined in the standard,” the release states.
Homeland Security Develops Space Weather Strategy
The White House is so concerned about GMDs that it is developing a National Space Weather Strategy for such events, an April press release from the Department of Homeland Security states. In November 2014, the White House National Science and Technology Council launched the Space Weather Operations, Research and Mitigation (SWORM) Task Force. SWORM’s charter required the development of a National Space Weather Strategy, which will “articulate high-level strategic goals for enhancing national preparedness to space weather events,” the press release states.
“Reducing the nation’s vulnerability to space weather is a national priority,” the press release states. “[Homeland Security’s] Strategic National Risk Assessment identifies space weather as a hazard with the potential to pose a significant risk to national security. As a national risk, space weather warrants a coordinated strategy, and the whole community must work together to enhance the resilience of critical infrastructure to the potentially debilitating effects of space weather.”
The public is being invited to comment on a draft of the National Space Weather Strategy put together by the SWORM Task Force.
“Space-weather events pose a significant and complex risk to the Nation’s infrastructure and have the potential to cause substantial economic and human harm,” the draft strategy states.
“The Nation has not experienced the full consequences of an extreme space weather event in modern history,” the strategy notes.
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