Worst Case Scenario
By Brian F. Sullivan
When last I wrote about the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) issue, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had yet to publish its proposed rule for Mitigating Beyond Design Basis Events (MBDBE).
Since then, in a 3 to 2 vote, the NRC has gutted the rule, so as to leave our nuclear power plants vulnerable to major floods, earthquakes and the aftermath of a man-made or solar EMP.
The good news is that on March 26 President Trump issued an Executive Order titled Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses in an effort to assess the risks of such an attack on our national electric grid and critical infrastructure, which would include our nuclear power plants.
The order directs agency heads to estimate the consequences of an EMP and to prepare appropriate response plans. A solar or man-made EMP would be a beyond design basis event, so the directive should compel the NRC to take another look at their MBDBE rule, so as to examine the impact an EMP would have on our nuclear power plants and come up with an appropriate response plan, which would address the multiple plant scenario.
The key issue is what would happen if an EMP caused a national blackout, taking our electric grid down for an extended period. An Air Force Electromagnetic Defense Task Force (EDTF) study published this past November pointed out the importance of nuclear power resilience and the potential for approximately 60 sites and 99 nuclear reactors being simultaneously impacted.
With more than 60,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel in storage pools, the need for long term cooling and water make-up becomes paramount.
There is recognition that the NRC’s current FLEX protection for nuclear power plants would be overwhelmed in the event of a long-term blackout that impacted multiple plants at the same time. As a result, they will be assessing the effectiveness of emergency response plans and how the NRC would address the potential of a 90+ day grid blackout scenario.
The U.S. Commission to Assess the Threat to the Unites States from an EMP Attack has been warning us about the EMP potential for over 10 years. Knowledgeable citizens, such as Dr. William R. Graham, chairman of the Commission, Peter Pry, former executive director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, and former Ambassador Henry Cooper, as well as organizations such as the American Leadership and Policy Foundation and Foundation for Resilient Societies, have been sounding the alarm for years.
The security of the electric grid has proven to be such a critical national security issue that it has fostered consensus and a bi-partisan approach from senators like Ron Johnson (R) Wisconsin, Ted Cruz (R) Texas, Ed Markey (D) Massachusetts and former Sen. Jim Webb (D) Virginia. All have emphasized the need for our country to remain vigilant to the possibility of attacks that could cause devastating blackouts and all have emphasized the need to secure our nation’s grid and protect critical infrastructure.
Fortunately, it looks as though their efforts have finally resulted in a coordinated approach to address this serious concern.
I know it is difficult to consider worst-case scenarios that we would prefer remain unimaginable, but we know what failure of the imagination cost us on September 11, 2001.
Thank God we have prescient individuals and organizations who have continued to push this EMP issue and a president who is willing to listen and take the steps necessary to protect America.
Our enemies used our airplanes against us on 9/11. We don’t want them to use our electric grid and nuclear power plants against us now. We don’t ever want to be caught unprepared again. Perhaps that lesson is the one good thing that resulted from the 9/11 attacks.
Brian F. Sullivan is a senior fellow at the American Leadership and Policy Foundation. He is a retired Army Military Police lieutenant colonel and former risk program management specialist for the Federal Aviation Administration. He has more than 30 years of security experience and was presented with a Platinum REMI at the Houston International Film Festival in 2011 for his narration of the aviation security documentary, “Please Remove Your Shoes.”