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Notebook Technology

Double jeopardy

(Gerald Herbert/AP)

Technology

Double jeopardy

Two threats pose serious risks to the American electric grid, but the United States could prepare 

The Trump administration recently announced U.S. intentions to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, alleging repeated violations of the treaty by Russia. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that new advanced weapons could be aimed at American targets if the United States withdraws from the treaty.

Military analysts are reassessing the threat of nuclear war, given concerns about China, North Korea, and Russia. The horrors of blast damage and radiation are well-known, but the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force of the U.S. Air Force released a detailed report last November on the threat to the electric grid. One nuclear explosion high in the atmosphere could cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that could disrupt or destroy America’s electrical grid and much of our electronic equipment.

The likelihood of this happening is small, but if it did, America might enter a new dark age without any of the services required by a modern industrial society. An EMP could also result from natural causes, as occurred in 1859.

That year Fred Royce was working for the American Telegraph Company. He saw brilliant auroras in the sky at his office near Washington, D.C. As Royce worked his telegraph, he received a severe electric shock. A witness saw a spark jump from his forehead to the equipment. Magnetic compasses gyrated wildly. Telegraph communications were severely disrupted.

Scientists now know the sun causes frequent disturbances on Earth, though most are brief and far less severe than what became known as the Carrington Event, named for a British astronomer. If such an event recurred in our electronic age, the results could be as catastrophic as a nuclear-caused EMP. The type of solar disturbance most likely to cause disruption on Earth is a coronal mass ejection (CME), an explosion of plasma and magnetism from the surface of the sun.

In March 1989 a geomagnetic storm caused by a CME resulted in the collapse of the Hydro-Québec power system. This event plunged Quebec into cold and darkness for nine hours, while technicians struggled to overcome the effects of the Earth’s violently fluctuating magnetic field. In 2012, space probes detected a massive CME that faced away from Earth. University of Colorado physics laboratory director Daniel Baker said in a 2013 paper, “If that CME had hit earth, the resulting geomagnetic storm would have been comparable to the Carrington Event.” Peter Riley, a physicist with Predictive Science Inc., estimated the probability of a Carrington-class storm at 12 percent in the next 10 years.

Another factor increasing geomagnetic disturbances comes from the Earth itself. Measurements from satellites of the European Space Agency show the strength of Earth’s magnetic field is steadily decreasing, perhaps as quickly as 5 percent per decade. This field protects the planet from the effects of solar storms. As it continues to weaken, it may allow solar storms to cause more damage.

Congress has been aware of these issues since at least 2000, when it established the EMP Commission. This commission provided extensive reports in 2004 and 2008 detailing the seriousness of the EMP threat to modern American society. The reports also gave practical and affordable guidance for improving the resiliency of the electric grid. Professor and EMP Commission member George Baker testified before Congress in 2015, stating that the cost of grid enhancements would be $3.30 per month per electric ratepayer.

If lawmakers, regulators, and industry leaders understand these issues, what makes progress on hardening the electric grid so elusive? Utilities say the U.S. government has responsibility in preventing a nuclear attack and should set regulatory requirements. The government has had compelling reports on the risks of the EMP threat for at least 10 years. Yet Congress fails to pass relevant bills and regulators remain largely silent.

—Stephen Patton is a technology-fluent graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course