EMP Attack Concern Drives Pentagon to Reopen Cheyenne Mountain

The Pentagon has decided to reopen the Cheyenne Mountain Air Defense facility, which housed the heart of America’s air and missile defense of North America. The facility had been mothballed in a “cost-saving” move in 2006.

Last week, Admiral William Gortney, head of US NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and US Northern Command, reversed that decision and announced the Pentagon was spending an opening ante of $700 million to oversee reactivation of the Cheyenne mountain-embedded facility. The reason - the Pentagon’s fears of a nuclear Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack by a missile that would burn out America’s overly-dependent defense, which is based on modern electronics.

The article doesn’t say what has changed since 2006. After all, the danger of EMP has been recognized within the military for decades. I see four possibilities. One is the increased likelihood of attack by North Korea, Iran, and other unstable third world powers. Another is the proliferation of super-EMP weapon technology to North Korea and possibly to other such powers. Another is the growing susceptibility of modern military electronics to EMP. Another is a realization by the military of its dependence on the civilian infrastructure.

Ensuring the ability of the US to retaliate is important in forestalling attacks by rational leaders of such countries as China and Russia. It is less effective in deterring aggression by unstable dictators, unidentifiable terrorists, and Arabs with a death wish.

Status of Federal EMP Legislation

With Republicans taking control of the Senate, it might appear that chances of passage of the Shield Act are improved. Actually, though, some of the most intractable foes of EMP legislation have been Republicans Fred Upton and Lisa Murkowski. This is not a party issue, but a matter of entrenched interests in the power industry.

One promising likely development is official recognition of the EMP hazard by the Department of Homeland Security:

In order to mitigate the EMP threat, Rep. Franks (R-Ariz.), chair of the Congressional EMP Caucus, is pushing legislation that would secure critical infrastructure against an EMP attack. The Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (CIPA) would enable the Department of Homeland Security to implement practical steps to protect the electrical grid.

CIPA “enhances the Department of Homeland Security’s threat assessments for geomagnetic disturbances and electromagnetic pulse blackouts which will enable practical steps to protect the electric grid that serves our Nation,” Franks explained.

With 99 percent of critical infrastructure controlled by civilians, Franks believes the federal government must compel the private sector to harden systems against EMP attack. Through CIPA, he hopes to raise awareness of the threat of EMP, which will be crucial in mitigating future attacks on critical infrastructure.

“All of the civilian critical infrastructures that sustain the economy of the United States, and the lives of 310 million Americans, depend, directly or indirectly, upon electricity and electronic systems,” Pry said.

Passage of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act is the single most important thing Congress could do to protect the nation from the EMP threat, Pry said. Raising awareness of the EMP threat and how to prepare for it would help emergency planners and local responders in launching initiatives to protect the electric grid and implement the recommendations of the EMP Commission.

“Passage of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act would immediately mobilize thousands of emergency planners and first responders at all levels of government, and educate millions of others about the EMP threat and how to prepare for it,” Pry said.

Although the CIPA does not provide funding to harden the grid, it is likely to be quickly passed by Congress and signed by the President. This would be a step forward.

Even if the core transformers of the national electrical grid were hardened, it is not clear to me that this would by itself prevent catastrophe. There are thousands of smaller transformers that could still be damaged. In a nuclear EMP, computerized control circuitry critical to food and fuel production could be burned out. Computers necessary to the running of banks could be ruined, with no way to access account information. Preventing such widespread, simultaneous damage is a daunting challenge.

Agricultural Strategies

Following an EMP attack, what is the best strategy for producing food? Is it best to grow field crops such as wheat? Or to tend gardens with beans and squash? Or to raise livestock?

After the initial die back, there will be plenty of fallow land, and livestock could graze it with little technology or human labor needed. The difficulty is that starting with just a few animals it takes years to build up a herd of cattle, goats, sheep, or pigs to the point where animal protein could provide a significant addition to the diet of a community. Chickens, however, breed quickly, and after a year could provide enough eggs to be an important source of protein. To avoid drawing attention to your operations, you might have to keep your roosters inside a building.

With a lack of power to pump water, the ability to grow non-irrigated crops such as wheat becomes more important. This requires tractors and hence diesel fuel and perhaps repair electronics for the tractors. As mentioned before, diesel fuel should be obtainable from service stations, given the ability to pump it out. Solar electric systems or small generators could power machine shops which could make parts to repair farm equipment.

Where water is available, gardens could be established. This is a high-labor alternative, but labor is likely to be available. For both field crops and gardens, it would be important to stockpile seeds. Some of those seeds should be legumes, both for edible crops and for cover crops to provide nitrogen.

So a number of agricultural strategies seem viable in the aftermath of an EMP disaster, but in each case advance planning and stockpiling is critical.

Missile Defense

The September 6th edition of The Economist included an article titled The Unsheltering Sky which evaluated the prospects of missile defense of the US from nuclear attack. The article concluded that such prospects look “doomed.”

Though the article is well-written, it seems to me that the danger is great enough to justify great expense. Putting up space-based orbital interceptors would be a fairly effective way to neutralize a small-scale attack, and such a system would protect the entire world, not just the US. It would have to be paired with a satellite inspection system to ensure that no one would hide a nuclear weapon inside a non-military satellite. Also, such a system could be overwhelmed by multiple weapons or sophisticated evasion or decoy systems. Nevertheless, though it wouldn’t be foolproof, I think it would be worth the cost. After the first use of nuclear weapons to mount an EMP attack, there is likely to be enough political capital to make this investment. Let’s just hope we are not the target of that first attack.

Oceans of Gasoline and Diesel Fuel

A typical service station can store 20,000 gallons of liquid transportation fuel. This fuel source would become critically important during an extended emergency (an extended emergency is one which is both widespread and prolonged).

During an extended emergency, failure of the electrical grid would make it hard to pump out this fuel. Civil disorder would make it dangerous to travel and use fuel in any case. Lack of food would quickly reduce the population. For these three reasons, this resource is likely to remain relatively untapped and intact during the emergency. This means it will be available for farming, transportation, and small-scale power generation to those who survive the initial dieback.

One challenge often mentioned with regard to liquid fuels is degradation over time. Gasoline these days contains alcohol, which absorbs water from the air. Air in tanks also allows slow oxidation of the fuel. The products of oxidation and biological activity (due to water) can plug up engines. Yet these problems are not intractable. These fuels have survived as part of petroleum for millions of years, simply by being kept sealed away from air. Diesel fuel and gasoline sealed in drums should last a long time. Oxidation products can largely be filtered out, or even removed by distillation if necessary.

What is needed to tap this resource is a simple automotive fuel pump connected to a hose which can be dropped down into service station tanks. It can be powered by a car battery or small generator, or simply the power system of the vehicle that will be transporting the fuel. A fuel filter can be included to ensure the fuel drawn out is clean.

The best plan would be to store your own fuel to meet your needs during the first few months of an extended emergency, and tap service station tanks later on when it is safer to go out. You are unlikely to need much fuel during this initial period, since running generators, cars, and farm equipment might draw unwelcome attention.

Well Water in an Emergency

After failure of the electrical grid due to an EMP, lack of water will be the first effect to seriously concern people. Most homes have been built far from natural water sources, and water is heavy to carry any distance. Bottled drinks will quickly disappear, and then people will start to drink from questionable sources. Infections such as Giardiasis will cause diarrhea and further dehydration. Without power or natural gas, it will be hard for people to boil enough water to meet their needs.

Water wells, where they exist, are the best solution to this problem. Well water is naturally filtered by at least 20 feet of soil to remove dangerous microorganisms. The only question is how to bring this water up so we can use it.

The cheapest solution is, after the emergency begins, to draw out the submersible pump (present in most wells) and then lower and raise well buckets to bring up the water. If the well is not too deep and the pipe is plastic, removing the submersible pump can be done by hand. Otherwise, you need to set up a tripod and use a hand winch, which would probably be a challenge for most people. Well buckets are tall skinny buckets with a flapper check valve in the bottom so they can fill from the bottom. They can be bought for about $80 (e.g., Lehman’s) or you can make your own from a 5 foot length of 3” diameter PVC sewer pipe, a pipe cap, and a flap of rubber or plastic.

An alternative to well buckets, for wells shallower (to the static water level) than about 50 feet, is to install a hand pump. For static water levels of 23 to 50 feet, you still have to remove the submersible pump. You replace it with a hand lever connected to a rod that goes down the well to actuate a submersible piston pump. This is of moderate cost but involves some work. If you have a well dedicated to the use of a hand pump, you can pay a professional to do all this work before the onset of an emergency.

If your static water level is less than 23 feet deep, you don’t have to remove your nonfunctional electric submersible pump. Instead, you install a pitcher pump at the top. This pump sucks water up through the unpowered submersible pump. You can install it yourself at moderate cost (a high quality Heller Aller pitcher pump with brass cylinder and hose bib costs $306) or you can pay a professional to do it for you. Being able to install an emergency system ahead of time is a real advantage over trying to do it after the onset of disaster.

If your static water level is down more than about 50 feet, hand pumps become too hard to operate. Well buckets still work, though removing an existing deep submersible pump after the onset of an emergency becomes more challenging. A second well could be drilled exclusively for the use of well buckets, or you could use an alternative electrical power source to power your existing submersible pump.

Alternative power system components – modern generators, solar cells, and inverters – are vulnerable to electromagnetic pulses generated by high altitude nuclear bursts. If a HEMP is your concern, you need to put this equipment in Faraday cages until after the EM pulse, then take it out and assemble it. Make sure that your pump electrical control does not include a microprocessor, or it could also be zapped by the HEMP.

Consider including a water storage tank or extra bottled water in your plans. This would fill your needs after the onset of an emergency but before you have your new system installed and working.

Attack on Electrical Substations

In April of 2013, there was a midnight attack on California’s Metcalf Substation, an electrical power distribution center serving San Jose. This event was recently reported in an article in the Wall Street Journal after 10 months under wraps for fear of inspiring copycat crimes. The attack involved perhaps three gunmen who targeted and disabled 17 transformers. Though the power company was able to bypass the substation, the transformers were down for a month.

If more than one substation had been attacked, the outcome would have been much more serious. For example, imagine that the 21(?) perpetrators of 9/11 had carried out a coordinated attack. They could have disabled 7 substations and caused grid failure over a large area. I imagine this would lead to considerable hardship and economic damage, though not the kind of die-off that would result from a nuclear-generated EMP.

Notice that the protection needed to forestall a physical attack on the grid is different from that intended to harden against an EMP attack. So it is not clear that the Metcalf attack will prompt power companies to harden against EMP. A successful attack that caused hardship might, however, prompt government to ask the broader question of how to make our power systems less vulnerable. It is frustrating that it might take a major disaster to motivate our nation to prepare for a catastrophic disaster.

Even if we were to start hardening our critical infrastructures tomorrow, it may already be too late for us to prepare to deflect an attack which could come at any time.

Book Review: EMP – Protect Family, Homes, and Community

This book by Don White and Jerry Emanuelson attempts to provide technical guidance to those who would like to protect their homes from the destructive effects of a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack. Both authors are electrical engineers, and so are better equipped than most to understand the EMP publications released by the US military.

Yet the critical technical details are often elusive. The book emphasizes the importance of solar photoelectric systems, but the authors have not quite located a protective mesh for the face of solar panels which screens out an EMP yet admits light. A supplement at  http://www.futurescience.com/emp/AppendixD.html suggests stainless steel mesh, but adds that it doesn’t fully protect the panels from EMP and is likely to create a corrosion problem where it joins the aluminum frame. Until these details are worked out, the best solution may be to keep the panels and other vulnerable system components in a Faraday cage until after the EMP has done its damage, then pull them out and assemble them. The same could be done with spares for the vulnerable components of other critical electrical appliances.

The subtitle of the book is “Using Shielded Solar Rooftops and Shielded Rooms and Buildings to Protect our Modern Lifestyle.” Yet aside from us fleeing the country, I see no way to protect our modern lifestyle if an EMP hits us. A more reasonable goal is simply to survive, and to do that, we need to focus on meeting our most basic needs instead of worrying about whether our automated clothes washer works.

That said, you have to admire anyone who even attempts to tackle the problems posed by an EMP attack.

UPDATE – A reader points out that page 155 of the book lists companies that supply protective mesh for solar hardening.

Helping Others

Imagine that you are a philanthropist who wants to blunt the effects of an EMP catastrophe. You can’t save everyone, but you want to do more than just save your own family. What should you do?

The most important thing you should do is save the farmers. Without them, everyone will starve. To save the farmers, you also need to save people who support farmers, such as rural policemen, farm equipment repair specialists, and small power system specialists.

Beyond the question of whom you should save from a practical standpoint, there is the moral perspective. Who deserves to survive? I believe one answer to this is, you should help those who help themselves, who recognize the danger and take steps to prepare. A family can stock food for a possible disaster, but it is hard for a single family to defend itself from looters. So help such families band together to defend themselves.

EMP-Hardened Power Systems

The best system for a post-Pulse world – solar photoelectric – would be destroyed by an EMP weapon. The high frequency E1 wave would burn out the solar panels, the inverter, and the charge controller. The E3 wave (which is equivalent to that generated by a geomagnetic storm) might damage some of these components as well, if the system were tied into the grid as most systems are. This means that the components of a photoelectric system should be protected in a Faraday Cage until after the Pulse, then brought out and assembled. The wiring, batteries, and panel support system can be put into place ahead of time to minimize later assembly work. The batteries can handle the Pulse, but since they might be sitting around unused for years, they should be purchased dry. The sulfuric acid should be added only when the system is assembled. Otherwise, the batteries will go bad in a few years even if they are unused.

The best rainy-day backup for the photoelectric system, and one that can be activated quickly, is a propane-fueled electric generator. Propane, unlike gasoline and even diesel fuel, can be stored indefinitely without going bad. Modern fixed generator sets are controlled by microelectronics, and so most generators would have to be encased in a Faraday Cage, with no penetrations (power out cord and propane tubing would have to be by a quick connect pigtail folded inside the cage). Most of these generators are started by a battery which is normally kept charged by a connection to the grid. This means the generator has to occasionally be connected to the grid, or it has to be periodically run such that part of its output is directed back to the unit to recharge the battery. In fact, generator vendors recommend their units be run every week or month in any case. So generators large enough to power a house require maintenance. They are also noisy, and the high rpm ones don’t last too long. Though propane doesn’t degrade, there is no guarantee that you will be able to find more when your tank runs dry. For these reasons, the photoelectric system is the more important one.

During the pre-Pulse period be glad you can tap any amount of power at any time by simply connecting to your local electrical grid. But put in a transfer switch and an alternative system if you want to be prepared for hard times.