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Johnson Introduces Bill to Require Federal Strategy to Protect Electric Grid

U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) on Thursday introduced legislation directing the federal government to prepare to protect critical infrastructure against threats of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) nuclear weapons and geomagnetic disturbances from solar “storms” — and the strategy will be updated every two years.

Johnson introduced the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act the day after witnesses told the committee he chairs, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, that despite years of warnings little to nothing has been done to protect America’s electric grid from the threat of electromagnetic disturbances.

Such disturbances can damage or disable power distribution systems.  Solar weather caused by the bursts of charged particles periodically ejected by the sun could also cause a major collapse of the electric grid.  Both threats can be mitigated if protective equipment is installed or if other critical procedures are taken when a threat is imminent.

In addition to requiring the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to prepare a strategy to protect critical infrastructure, Johnson’s bill would require the DHS to research ways to mitigate the threat, including ways to quickly protect the grid and means of recovering from damage or disruption.

In 2008, the EMP Commission, a federal panel of experts, came up with a long list of recommendations for the departments of Homeland Security and Energy.  Johnson asked witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing whether the individual recommendations have been implemented.  Responses consisted of varied forms of “no” as Johnson read down the list of standards.

We’ve been warned yet done nothing, Johnson summarized, “when, by the way, we spent 800 billion dollars in 2009 and 2010 on a stimulus package looking for shovel-ready projects.  This would have been a pretty good shovel-ready project.”

“One of the things that makes it hard,” testified Christopher P. Currie, director of Homeland Security and Justice for the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “is no one at DHS tracks line by line what efforts coincide with these recommendations.”  He noted in his opening testimony that “we have seen some confusion within DHS about who is responsible for taking lead on this.”

Witnesses agreed that American society could sustain unprecedented harm if a solar storm similar in size to the 1859 storm known as the Carrington event were to take place in the near future.  “It would be much, much, much worse.  It would collapse societies,” testified Dr. Richard L. Garwin, fellow emeritus at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, who was testifying in a personal capacity.

On July 23, 2012, such a solar storm missed the earth by just three days, Garwin testified Wednesday.

The full video of the Senate hearing can be seen here.

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