Electric Power Blackout: The Power of One

by KEN CHROSNIAK December 7, 2012

There exists a clear and present danger to you, your family and your community; the loss of sustained electric power.  As of now, absolutely no government entity (except for the Department of Defense (DoD)) has initiated plans for survival from a catastrophic breakdown of our electric grid over multiple regions of America.  Even worse, the U.S. government lacks the ability and inclination to provide you with critical information for your survival and well-being.

Even though there exists grace and beauty all around us, we are constantly being bombarded with 24/7/365 news, -- mostly negative. While I hesitate to add more angst to your life in these very anxious times, near the end, I'll give you a glimmer of hope on what positive action you can do. That's my goal in this 'conversation' with you. My perspective is from a private citizen and former soldier, formed from the foundation of a history/english major and not a scientist (actually it's an advantage). This is a very complicated problem set with many moving parts that affect you directly, and our very survival as a sovereign nation.  It's best to leave it to you and me to the chase, and get a good picture of the condition of our country.    

We are totally dependent on electricity; we literally cannot survive without it. Our extremely tenuous electric grid, comprised of hundreds of vulnerable power extra high voltage (EHV) transformers and over 200,000 miles of aged transmission lines, is the 'circulatory system' that runs our country and touches every aspect of your life such as water pressure for daily use, sanitation and fighting fires; your cell phone; the Internet (that makes it possible for the doctor to order Insulin for your child); the supply chain to deliver that Insulin to you; pumping systems to cool the nuclear power plant core rods and spent fuel pools; Wall Street and ATM's; medical services; all forms of transportation; oil refinery production; refrigeration; military installations and defense industrial bases; your social security/pension check, and virtually all types of emergency communications used by Fire, Police, and EMS to name just a few.

Mr. Joseph McClelland, Director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) expressed further concern that private power utilities are not truly prepared to handle a catastrophic EMP event, and stated that the effects of such an event would be profound on the entire national grid system.  Most crucial are the 350 plus large EHV transformers that are vulnerable to all threats; and there are little to no replacements on-hand; and, worst of all, they are not made in the US!  Each requires significant design configuration, which takes nearly two years to make, and significant transportation support to put in place. Worst case (remember to always plan for worst case), we will not be able to order nor have the capability to deliver them for multiple years.   

It's difficult to effect change in a person or group through fear alone; and my intent is not to.  But weren't we vividly reminded most recently of our archaic and delicate electric grid as a result of hurricane Sandy in NY and NJ, and before that the Derecho storm that hit the Baltimore-DC-Philadelphia corridor?  Fortunately we had fire and EMS service for these desperate times within the regional area to help. Driving to New York City on Friday afternoon just two days before Sandy hit, I passed a convoy of utility trucks (cherry pickers) headed east.  They were being repositioned as a result of pre-existing plans for assistance.  However, in the event of a simultaneous 'multi-regional catastrophic' event, that support can't will not be available from neighboring regions as they will experience similar problems plus road/traffic congestion, and limited to no communication capability (especially the tenuous 911 system). The real downer here is that most likely there won't be a power source to work with if they do arrive.  

Also, remember this past spring when the Earth experienced an X5 level solar flare (coronal mass ejection)?  While it did some harm (mostly to GPS and communications), many factors precluded it from hitting us 'head on'; but mainly pure luck.  While solar events occur often, with the most sensational one's occurring in 1859, 1923, 1989 and 2001, a massive solar event occurring now would totally destroy modern electronics and leave us "in the dark" for months, if not years. NASA Goddard Space Center and many national solar experts have predicted increased solar activity between now and 2014, with a significant peak activity during 2013.

Have you also been told that there are manmade threats existing to the electric power grid, in addition to solar flares and devastating Sandy-type storms?  No, probably not.  One is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated from a high-altitude nuclear burst which will destroy outdated and vulnerable high voltage transformers (of which power utilities have critically low spares) and the tenuous transmission system.  Let me add to these threats the insidious risk of a coordinated cyber and physical attack on our power generation plants and critical infrastructures.  That's right, most likely all these threats are unknown to you as your local, state and federal leaders have not prepared you for the effects of these catastrophic high-impact/low-frequency events.  Taken individually, each threat could result in long-term failure of the electric grid. To give you some perspective, a 2001 congressionally mandated EMP commission of eminent scientists (after an eight year study) concluded in 2008 that over 2/3rds of our population would perish within one year of a nation-wide "grid-down" event. 

A recently declassified 2007 National Academies report on power grid vulnerabilities stated that cyberattacks, unlike natural disasters, probably could not cause lengthy blackouts.  That was not true then, and it's certainly not true now. DHS is fully aware that a cyber attack on the power system could affect large regions of the country for weeks or even months. The result would be significant societal unrest (you can use your imagination here) and helplessness.  Has DHS alerted you to that fact?  

Your First Responder community is not aware of this also, and assistance will not be guaranteed or will be severely compromised as your National Fire Service and fire academies have not addressed this problem-set, and have not developed or exercised plans to protect you. Nor has the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  They have not developed plans or exercise scenarios, or provided guidance to firefighters concerning any long-term power outages plans for emergency service or police.  While it's well-known that DHS, FEMA and state emergency management offices have excellent "All Hazard" (so called) plans 'on the shelf', and conduct exercises for local and regional disasters, there are no existing plans or exercises for a prolonged blackout lasting months or years (involving multiple regions in the continental United States), which will surely result in a tremendous loss of life over time. The closest plan might be the worst case scenario outlined in the recently published National Preparedness Report (March 30, 2012, page 5), where FEMA encourages each local community (of 5-7 million or so) to be ready to handle as many as 260,000 medical casualties beyond the means of ‘government' help.  DHS should develop plans to facilitate command and control (situational awareness), and encourage localized awareness and empowerment.  One last area of concern to you first responders out there; how much of a surge capability do you have in your organization?

For fire protection alone, agencies of the DHS should ensure that fire apparatus manufacturers produce hardened fire engines, ladder trucks, heavy rescue vehicles and ambulances that can withstand an EMP (hopefully, including a robust E1 HEMP). DHS must produce plans for recovery for maintaining situational awareness and encourage local to state preparation of plans to assist recovery efforts, and regularly exercise those plans.  DHS should also ensure development of training material/courses for First Responders (fire, police and EMS) on operational procedures during and after the loss of power, develop an EMP attack consequence assessment tool to perform planning analysis and training (in order to set aside and protect critical equipment), ensure essential 911 communications are hardened and redundant (the 911 system was compromised during the recent Derecho event on the east coast), and enhance mutual relationships for time of need.

None of the above is being accomplished right now, as many fire and police chiefs have no idea what to do relative to the catastrophic (if not tragic) effects of having little to no electricity for very prolonged periods of time, over multiple regions of the country. Ask your local fire chief to explain the effects of an electromagnetic pulse on his/her department or the loss of electricity for a long time, and see what she or he has to say. You can then waste more time by asking the police chief the same thing.     

Thinking of the military "cavalry coming over the hill" after the blackout? Forget it. Again, plan for the worst case! You won't be able to count on the military for help as they are not sufficiently hardened against an EMP, nor exercised or trained to withstand the effect of an EMP or the loss of electric power for sustained periods. They, as you, are heavily dependent for support from their surrounding community electric grid, which powers all military posts and their crucial defense industrial base. Certain aspects of the military are hardened. Again, they are wired to the same grid you are.

Another area devoid of planning in a grid down event is the effect on nuclear power plant back-up power (batteries and generators) for coolant controls to keep the core and spent fuel pools (which may store numerous discarded rods from the core) cool and temporarily safe. Interesting note: the August 2003 blackout that affected over 90 million people and portions of northeastern U.S. and Canada also shut down over 500 power generating plants, with 22 of them nuclear power plants!  To keep the core rods and spent fuel pool cool, batteries last about 12-48 hours at best.  Generators, if they start to begin with (remember Fukushima?) will eventually run out of fuel (~30 days) with resupply highly questionable (don't forget refineries and the transportation system will be affected also). Once generators run out of fuel, venting of Cesiun-134 from the spent fuel pools will occur first, and in little time a compromised core. Let this fact sink in: a nuclear power plant can only be restarted by a full-up external power source; it cannot ‘Black Start' itself.

Need some good news? Recently a plan was proposed to 'hard wire' (EMP proof) a military installation located in VERY close proximity to a hydroelectric generating plant. This hydro plant has attractive attributes: it's a renewable source of energy that cannot be shut down by lack of a source (H20); it has maintained the Analog system (as opposed to the vulnerable ‘cyber hack-able' Digital system); and has the distinction of being the only power generating plant remaining operational during the 2003 Northeast blackout.  And best of all, it can Black Start a downed nuclear power plant! Absolutely no negatives were noted in the initial study.  So what has been done with this basic proposal? Absolutely nothing has yet been done. But if/when completed, it could be a great cookie-cutter model for other hydroelectric plants in our nation, and could provide the military and surrounding community an extended runway, the capability to receive/store repositioned aircraft, a civilian and military command center, a viable support system for military and civilian emergency services, and a capability to receive, stage and prepare for onward movement of life-sustaining goods, and more (bound only by one's imagination). And the cost?  Let's say considerably less than the recent 'Cash-4 Clunkers' debacle. This project was stalled during the election cycle, buy maybe we can get it going now. Oh yes, one reminder; it can re-start a downed nuclear power plant!

Need more good news? DoD is leaning forward in the foxhole, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently warned of an impending Cyber Pearl Harbor attack that could result in an electric breakdown with cascading failure of critical infrastructure (power generating plants) across the nation.  Plans are developing for "islands of power", micro-grids if you will, to provide sustained power to a number of military installations (and possibly defense industrial base facilities) consisting of solar, wind, and other varied sources of power to provide at least 20% of essential need.  Also, a new bipartisan House Resolution 762 encourages local communities to begin the process of doing the same thing in every local community, namely making 20% of what is needed locally such as power and food, so they can withstand a grid collapse.  Support this effort by contacting your federal legislative leaders to support H.R. 762. 

It is a basic tenet of sound military planning that a commander's staff must plan for the worst case situation, and the same should be true for disaster planning. This is where your government is failing you. In addition to H.R. 762, right now Congress is literally sitting on additional legislation that will help protect the grid, and save many lives. The SHIELD Act (H.R. 668) has been held in a congressional committee almost 2 years and will expire on December 31st, 2012. Contact your congressional and senate representatives to bring it to a vote.  Additionally (just for the fun of it), contact your local, county, and state representatives and ask them what they are doing to make your community more resilient in the case of an EMP or electric grid blackout. Trust me; they won't be able to answer you.

It is unfathomable that you have not been told of these threats by your leaders, especially the one agency entrusted to keep you secure and informed.  That's right, the DHS. The threat from either a natural or man-made EMP is very real, and inevitable, as stated by two Congressional EMP Commission reports, as well as studies performed by the National Academy of Science on grid vulnerabilities, the Northern Electric Reliability Corporation, the NASA Goddard Space Center, the recently declassified (finally by DHS) National Research Council study entitled "Terrorism and the Electric Power Deliver System", the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and many more.

Unfortunately (here I am again with the bad news), the time needed to "fix" the grid even if the SHIELD Act bill passes soon will be years, so it is prudent now for you to prepare for a prolonged blackout by storing essential supplies for your own and your family's survival. Do not continue to think in the false terms of the 72 hour mantra as DHS states! Try to prepare and stock provisions within your financial means to do so, for as long a term as you are financially able to -- preferably a year or more.

The bottom-line is that your leaders at all levels, and the electric industry, have been negligent in not mitigating this threat, or even developing scenarios and exercises to deal with a complex catastrophic event involving a long duration power blackout over several regions of our country at the same time.  For our own survival, and for the survival of our children and our nation, we-and our government-must act now. By reading this, you have taken a step forward that many others may be willing to take also.  If you remember nothing else from this message, remember that in the end you are inevitably on your own. 

I encourage you to contact your federal legislator to support House Resolution 762 and the Shield Act HR 668, but the odds are that these bills will expire on December 31st and will need to be re-introduced (under new HR #'s) in the new congress.  Even more essential, go to the EMPact America website at: empactamerica.org.  Consider joining this dedicated non-profit, non-partisan group (which will not take any contributions, not like some congressional leaders and their electric industry donors), and exist only to prepare individuals and communities to survive and work together.  Lend your expertise to help others; -- prepare your family and community.  Most importantly, talk to your leaders and demand that they do their job.  Remember the power of one; you! 

*The opinions noted within this article are those of the author, and cannot be attributed to any government or non-government entity to which the author has been associated.

Ken Chrosniak a retired Army officer living in Carlisle, PA.  He is a member of EMPact America, a firefighter with Carlisle Fire Rescue, and also the FBI sponsored INFRAgard.  Ken is an instructor at the Army War College. 


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