The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) internally recognizes that a power grid failure resulting from an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or a solar storm can pose great risk to the security of the nation, but it hasn’t prepared adequately, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a newly released report.

The GAO’s 68-page report, “Federal Agencies Have Taken Actions to Address Electromagnetic Risks, but Opportunities Exist to Further Assess Risks and Strengthen Collaboration,” reviews federal efforts to address electromagnetic risks to the electric grid. It concludes that while several agencies have taken key steps, the DHS and Department of Energy (DOE) have not coordinated with industry to identify and implement key risk management activities to address manmade or solar electromagnetic risks.

The April 25–released report assesses risks posed by a high-altitude—from 25 to 250 miles above the Earth’s surface—EMP event, which could be caused by the detonation of a nuclear device above the atmosphere. The burst of electromagnetic radiation resulting from such an event could disrupt or destroy computers and damage electronics and insulators, as well as severely damage critical electrical infrastructure like transformers.

Fast and Slow Pulse Threats Have Different Impacts

EMP components are referred to as E1, E2, and E3. E1 is a “fast pulse” that primarily disrupts or damages electronic-based control systems, sensors, computers, and similar devices, but may also adversely affect long-line electrical systems. The E2 component is similar to lightning and has a similar ability to impair or destroy control features that are not protected from lightning. The E3 “slow pulse” component is a subsequent, slower-rising, longer-duration pulse that creates disruptive currents in transmission lines, which causes grid instability and increases heat in transformers, the report says, citing experts. “If the E3 pulse is high enough and long enough it can result in grid collapse and potentially damage transformers.”

Solar weather events of sufficient intensity can cause E3-type electromagnetic impacts. In 1989, for example, a geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) caused a regional grid collapse within 92 seconds in the Hydro-Quebec power system that left six million customers without power for up to nine hours. The threat of GMDs has been played up with good reason: Space weather researchers currently estimate a 6% to 12% chance that a Carrington-class storm—a solar storm comparable in size to the largest on record—is likely to hit the earth within the next 10 years. In July 2012, a storm of that magnitude missed Earth by about nine days, and only because it occurred on the far side of the sun, facing away from the Earth.

While about 85% of critical electrical infrastructure is owned by private industry, the DHS, DOE, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have addressed EMP and GMD risks indirectly, through standards and guidelines, research, strategy development, planning, and training. Many of these actions align with recommendations outlined in a report issued in April 2008 by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the U.S. from EMP Attacks.

Widespread Perplexity

Yet, though it recognizes the “significant risk” of EMP or GMD events to national security, the DHS hadn’t clearly identified internal roles and responsibilities for addressing EMP risks to the grid, the GAO’s new report says. That is leading to confusion concerning who the agency’s point of contact is for EMP activities.

Additionally, the department hasn’t “fully leveraged available risk information or conducted a comprehensive analysis of these risks.” Specifically, “officials were unable to provide detailed information about the specific risk inputs—namely threat, vulnerability, and consequence information—that were used to assess how electromagnetic events compared to other risk events, or how they were used to inform DHS’s applicable risk-management priorities,” the GAO said.

The report also outlines the power sector’s perplexity about electromagnetic threats. As George Baker, a former professor at James Madison University and a member of the EMP Commission, testified before a House committee in May 2015, many widespread and harmful misconceptions are distorting concerns about costs and liabilities, making stakeholders in both government and the private sector reluctant to admit vulnerabilities and spring to action.

“In cases where stakeholders have decided to take action to improve infrastructure survivability, the actions have been limited and ineffective,” Baker warned, citing efforts by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) to set reliability standards for wide-area electromagnetic effects. “The standards ultimately developed by NERC include a set of operational procedures requiring no physical protection of the electric grid and a scientifically-flawed benchmark GMD threat description that enables most U.S. utilities to avert installing physical protection based on their own paper modeling studies,” he said.

In its report, the GAO, meanwhile, describes how the lack of threat information is making it difficult for members of an unspecified industry association to justify to management, shareholders, or regulators the need for investment in EMP protective measures.

The confusion is made worse when it is considered that the impact to the grid from electromagnetic threats may vary substantially by location, network and operating characteristics, and other factors. “For example, key reports on GMD indicate that high-voltage transformers located at higher latitudes in the United States are likely subject to increased potential for adverse impacts from GMD events than those at lower latitudes,” the report says. “However, this is not the case with EMP, which may have impacts equal to or greater than GMD in any latitude of the United States. Additionally, an EMP would subject infrastructure assets to a combination of E1, E2, and E3 effects compared to GMD which only produces impacts similar to the E3 effect.”

Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)

On April 17, 2016, an active region on the sun’s right side released a mid-level solar flare, which can be seen in this movie as a bright flash of light. The movie shows imagery from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which observes the sun constantly to help scientists understand what causes eruptions like these. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground, however — when intense enough—they can cause grid disturbances.