Last week, thanks to the Wall Street Journal, the American public was informed about an extraordinary attack that took place last April near San Jose. Several snipers, their identities apparently still unknown, performed a highly disciplined and damaging assault on a major electricity substation, knocking out 17 giant transformers that provide power to Silicon Valley and its environs.
If these terrorist saboteurs had had more time to continue their attack, they could have caused a blackout lasting anywhere for months to possibly even years in a region hosting one of the most critical sectors of the American economy.
This was an attack of military sabotage that required extensive knowledge and training. It targeted one of the most strategically important yet extraordinarily vulnerable installations in our nation’s critical infrastructure.
The vulnerability of the 2,000 such transformers that are the central nodes of America’s electrical grid have been well-known to our homeland security establishment for a long time but, thus far, nothing has been done about it.
The vulnerability not only involves this kind of kinetic military assault, but also potential cyber attacks, the threat of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated by solar activity, and an EMP that can be generated by the atmospheric detonation of a nuclear weapon 50 miles above American soil.
An EMP, from whatever source, could not only destroy the electrical grid in huge swaths of the United States, but also the electrical circuits in every computer and modern vehicle, including the trucks that bring food from the farms to the processing plants and then to the wholesalers’ warehouses and then to the grocery stores and restaurants. Because American metropolitan areas do not have huge warehouses with stores of food sufficient to sustain the local population for months on end, serious studies of the effects of an electromagnetic pulse posit the possibility of up to 100 million deaths due to starvation and lack of clean water (which requires electricity to be pumped into your home).
Given the catastrophic consequences of widespread and prolonged electrical blackouts, it is amazing to me that our federal and state governments have done nothing to protect the most critical components of our nationwide electrical system, especially given that such protection can be secured at least for the 2,000 transformers at very modest cost.
Apparently, no federal or state government agency has legal authority to impose such protection on the investor-owned private electric utilities that own and manage the grid. If indeed it is true that no such legal authority exists, one of the highest public policy priorities in this nation is to pass legislation that would supply such protection. This is a cost that should not be borne by individual utilities; rather, it should be a homeland security expenditure by the US government that is no different in concept than US naval protection of those sea lines of communication which are the conduit for the importation of foreign oil.
The absence of protection of our electrical infrastructure comes as close to reckless negligence as anything in our public life.