Lights Out: The national black-out threat

Lights Out: The national black-out threat

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Imagine waking up and discovering there is no electricity across the United States and it may not be restored for at least a year.

It's a frightening thought because the U.S. relies heavily on technology and electricity. Without electricity, engineering experts say the country comes to a halt because critical infrastructure depends on power to function. That includes the lights, phones and computers used by businesses, hospitals, banks and the companies responsible for the nation's food supply.

Congress set up a commission to study the U.S. electrical grid and found the the entire system is vulnerable and was never upgraded to protect it or minimize the damage from what's known as an EMP attack or an electromagnetic pulse. 

An EMP attack can occur naturally, hitting the earth in the form of a massive solar storm. NASA says its just a matter of time before some part of the world gets hit with a such a storm. A solar storm hit Quebec in 1989 and left millions in the dark for 12 hours.

The other form is a terror attack using a nuclear device detonated high in the atmosphere producing a burst of gamma rays. Those rays could damage or destroy all of the nation's electrical equipment and infrastructure with catastrophic consequences.

"No Internet, no telephone, your car wouldn't start, you'd have no power in your homes for a long period of time. No banking, no hospitals," said Kim Jovanovich, the assistant dean of the UNO College of Engineering.

The UNO professor said either of the EMP attacks could leave the U.S. in the dark for more than a year because the key EHV transformers damaged during a severe attack are manufactured outside of the U.S.

"We will not have the luxuries that we have right now, nor will we have the necessities that we do for every day life," Jovanovich said.

The Congressional commission recommended in 2008 that billions be spent to upgrade the grid. The research also estimates that nine out of 10 Americans would die in the first year after an attack because of the lack of power to run critical infrastructure.

A federal Homeland Security study also found a severe solar storm could leave tens of millions of Americans without power for years. Locally, Louisiana' s largest energy company, Entergy, said for security reasons it would not disclose if its electrical grid can survive an EMP attack. But the head of the Congressional Task Force on National and Homeland Security said energy companies and congress are aware of the problem and can't deny the vulnerability.

"Congress knows it's not protected from works of the EMP commission and subsequent studies done by other agencies, because we were able to get in and look at what's not been done by these companies," said Dr. Peter Pry, head of the Congressional Advisory Board Task Force on National and Homeland Security.

A former head of the Central Intelligence Agency said even Russia and China upgraded their electrical systems to protect the grid and minimize the damage from and EMP attack, while U.S. officials continue to bicker over who is responsible for it.

"The Homeland Security Department points at the Pentagon, and the Pentagon says well if it's a solar flare, that is a natural act, so it must be Homeland Security. So you have two agencies pointing fingers at each other," said former CIA director Ambassador Jim Woolsey.

Woolsey said the other concern had to do with a nuclear EMP attack. He and the commission members say right now, the U.S.  military has no strong warning system in place to detect a ballistic missile coming in from the Gulf of Mexico, and no way to stop it. The worry is that if a terror group were to use a freighter in the Gulf of Mexico to launch such an attack, by the time we see it it would be too late to do anything.

Commission members say there is reason to be concerned over such a scenario, given a discovery in 2013. Federal inspectors stopped a North Korean vessel in Panama after it left Cuba. They say they found on board a surface-to-air missile system hidden under tons of sugar.

Given the lack of Congressional response to address the problem, members of the commission are now educating state leaders on the threat with the hopes that they will take steps to protect the electrical grids in their states. They say states like Maine have taken steps through legislation to start addressing the issue.

Recently in Baton Rouge, security experts met with Energy and state leaders to educate them about the EMP threat.

"I  just don't think its an immediate possibility issue," said Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Eric Skrmetta.

Skrmetta said his main focus is stopping a cyber attack. However, he said Louisiana is currently conducting a study to learn about the vulnerabilities of the state's electrical system and will take all into consideration.

"If we are subject to an attack, to a real threat, then we will take action that is necessary." Skrmetta said.

Louisiana U.S. Sen. David Vitter said he applauds any state initiative, but he said it's a national issue, and finding money to pay for the electrical upgrades should be a federal priority.

"At last estimate, according to the commission, the cost would be $2 billion, and that's what we spend every year on foreign aid to Pakistan," Vitter said.

Vitter said he plans to continue pushing for it.

"We've all lived through blackouts with hurricanes here," he said. "If  the whole country was blacked out for a long period of time, that would be a real crisis."

For those working to educate the public about this - the hope is that citizens across the U.S. will pressure their congressional leaders to take action. They say the critical upgrades they call for to protect the grid and minimize the damage from an EMP attack would also protect from cyber and physical terror attacks.

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