Neutering North Korea's EMP Threat; Making the US Power Grid Impervious Is Achievable

12/20/2017 05:41 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2017

It's not that North Korea cannot eventually make an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead that can be detonated 100 miles in space somewhere above Philadelphia that matters.   It's that the US hasn't done anything to make it so that we won't be much more than annoyed if they do; that's the real problem.

The Easter US power grid seen from space.
NASA
The Easter US power grid seen from space.

As presently configured, the U.S. power grid in the Eastern United States is a basket case, a throwback to designs stemming from the early 20th century when the electric society was in it's infancy.  It's remote generators connected via long haul wires routing through a small number of difficult to replace large scale alternating current (AC) transformers. This power grid design is particularly vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack.  A well placed air burst can overwhelm this infrastructure, burn out the transformers and plunge the eastern US into a dark nightmare that will take the better part of a decade to recover from.  It's an existential threat.  The US that would emerge would be a very different one from what we know today.

This vulnerability is a cause for great consternation among analysts and pundits.  That fear in turn emboldens the North Koreans to carry on their dangerous game of ransom brinkmanship.  They are the worst sort of nuclear power; they are irresponsible and, quite honestly, delusional.

But here's the thing, their delusion depends entirely on the United States of America playing into the credibility of the North Korean bravado.   They need us to believe we have a vulnerable power grid. They need us to believe we cannot adequately defend our airspace without running afoul of all sorts of strategic arms control treaties that the US originally forged in negotiations with the old Soviet Union.  They need us to respond militarily because saber rattling and artillery duels at sunset are the reserve currency of ransom brinkmanship.

In a previous articles, I've written about the nature of the North Korean EMP threat, "Understanding North Korea’s EMP Threat", and how it's possible to re-architect the inventory of US missile defense assets to create a very credible missile shield again a North Korean EMP weapon attack regardless of whether they selected a direct path ICBM axis of attack or a more subtle "launch via Guam" fractional orbit bombardment axis of attack, "A US Missile Defense Architecture Solution Against a Rogue North Korean EMP Attack".

The remainder of this article will paint the picture of measures we can take to re-architect the US power grid to, bluntly, not care if North Korea can launch an EMP weapon against us.  In the mathematical parlance of nuclear strategy and global stability, this is about making North Korea's  currently credible boast into an obvious infeasible solution.  In other words, take EMP strategy off the table.

Mission Element Need

The strategic objective here is to make the problem for the North Koreans magnitudes of difficulty harder.  By taking the simple EMP card away from them, we force the North Koreans, and anyone helping them, to go back in the hole until they learn to field a nuclear force in sufficient numbers, with mid-course, re-entry and terminal guidance good enough to achieve initial and protracted campaign credible Yield/CEP's.   Just for for good measure, maybe add a warning that, it actually is in the US national interest to ponder a "containment war" in the face of unstable existential threats.  Yes there is more to this but I'll save that for another time.  We have more immediate needs to ponder in this piece.

Immediate Threat Mitigation

Time to beg the question, "Is re-architecting the US power grid that hard?"  The answer depends on the immediacy and sustainability of how we choose to harden our grid.

Let's first address a tactical strategy for neutering North Korea's bravado.  Our grid is vulnerable because it's constantly connected.  It's a huge antenna and conductor can will absorb the electromagnetic pulse energy released by a nuclear weapon detonated in low earth orbit, an altitude of about 100 to 150 nautical miles, to achieve maximum circuit frying effect.  It's a childish attack strategy; childish because the counter to it is childishly simple to implement.  We just need the resolve to do so.

Taking a clue from prior research as far back as a decade ago into a natural phenomenon known as coronal mass ejection (CME), that’s where the sun tries to kill all of us, there is a technique best described as “active grid fracturing” where power companies, alerted by surveillance satellites watching the sun, activate measures to lower power throughput in the lines so give the system more leeway to absorb and energy burst, bring energy shunts on line to further protect the most critical power grid nodes; and, if needed, temporarily isolate sections of the power grid from each other until the threat passes.  If you want to read up on more of this, Google "coronal mass ejection research articles"; make sure your brain is in the mood for physics and

Similar temporary active vulnerability mitigation measures are taken in the air travel system if natural phenomenon like CME’s or volcano eruptions occur.  In other words, we already have ways to deal with the transient danger of single warheads entering and leaving burst danger windows above our airspace; while our missile defenses are doing their best to shoot the thing out of the sky.

Resolve

Ok it’s doable, so where’s the the resolve part?  First, we have days to evaluate CME’s when the sun blows high energy particles in quantities measured in multiples of earth masses into space.  And most of the time the sun aims the burst in a harmless direction.  While CME’s happen regularly, the last time a super massive geomagnetic storm hit planet earth squarely was on September 1-2, 1859, known as the Carrington event.  The point is, responding to a CME, is a relatively leisurely affair; roughly the pace of an incoming hurricane.

A North Korean nuclear warhead arrives at its first burst opportunity around ninety (90) minutes after launch; think more like an earthquake with an hour and a half warning.  We respond to earthquakes by conducting response preparedness drills that train our infrastructure to deal with the aftermath of and event.   More subtle, and far more important, we prepare for earthquakes by establishing building codes and standards to reduce our vulnerability.  That’s what ultimately saves society from existential loss. We need to do the same for EMP.

There should be a more organized command, control, communications and battle management (C3/BM) structure that links the surveillance and warning resources of the Department of Defense to the power grid control systems via the Department of Homeland Security probably in cooperation with the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and ultimately executed by around two thousand private and municipal power companies in the US.  It needs to be a command system that has a demonstrated and practiced under 90 minute credible response capability; one we can wave confidently and indignantly in North Korea’s face.  Bottom line … it can be done … if we can find the resolve.

That’s the short term emergency measures approach.  It’s not a long term vulnerability reduction approach.

Longer Term Solutions

Big power companies won’t like hearing this but here’s the inconvenient truth.  What really changes the vulnerability of the US power infrastructure is shifting from a central utility technology base to an amorphous utility infrastructure.  This is no small undertaking either practically or politically.   But it is one we need to be actively discussing and being open to particularly when it comes to the financial economics of electricity.  We presently live in a world where we have the technological means to generate power locally, even household by household, to the point that one could question if there’s a need to have a pervasive power grid.   However, the stability of the bond markets financing large power plants and distribution networks still penalizes efforts to take advantage of so called “off grid” solutions. But here’s the thing, if more of the US power infrastructure was “off grid” based, we’d be that much more invulnerable to an EMP attack threat.

We may want to consider a future strategically segmented central power grid system aimed at supplying future large scale US industrial growth operating side by side with an equally large, if not more so, amorphous power system supplying communities with local power from combinations of non-grid power generation and storage technologies.  And example would be local co-ops of solar working with power companies to supply power into an embedded base of storage batteries in people’s homes, the people in those homes don’t even need to have solar, just the ability to store and return excess power.

Ultimately, such measures are not particularly sexy tech; they are practical extensions of emerging technologies we are already fielding into consumer economy. But the strategic byproduct of innovations for how we apply this technology to break up the grid to the point we can thumb our nose at an adversary who thinks the US will cower from their EMP bravado is certainly worth looking into.

Governance and Regulation

If I were to put a finger on why the US power grid is so vulnerable today I would point my finger squarely at public utility regulation.  It’s designed around a centralized power model and, more importantly, a consumer rates and fees based financing model.  To ensure the stability of electricity, regulations favor the protection of utilities and disfavor the exploration of alternative infrastructure models.  This model of organization, overseen by public utilities commissions with limited performance metric agendas, may or may not be the best national strategy for the United States in the future.  Energy trading models overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) may need to expand and adapt to embrace amorphous as well as centralized power generation and consumption models. This is all within what an adaptation of a distributed general ledger network can do in real time by the way; you know, bitcoin with a non-speculative purpose type of stuff.  Just saying.

If I were advising White House or Congress on this, I’d say it’s not a bad idea to bring together regulators and industrialists to re-architect the US electricity model for the remainder of the 21st century. I would point out that America has an untapped depth of capability to accomplish such a task.  There are 1,500 or so bond issuing municipal power entities reporting into the Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) system and 11,848 public companies listing SIC code 4911 or NAICS code 2211, Electrical Services in the US.  Surely, an EMP proof America can be constructed from this material.

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