Guest editorial |

Guest editorial

Utah needs to do a better job of protecting public utilities

F. Joseph Feely III, Park City

The July 4 launch by the North Koreans of a missile capable of striking Alaska with a nuclear warhead should set off alarm bells in our federal and state government agencies about the growing threat of a nuclear attack. It will not be long before the North Koreans will be capable of launching an electromagnetic pulse (“EMP”) attack that could seriously damage the electric grid in the U.S. According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”), such an attack could turn off the electric power in much of the country from four to 10 years, and the long-term loss of electrical power could cause mass starvation. In order to avoid such a catastrophe, we need to immediately take steps to harden and improve the resiliency of the power grid against EMP attacks.

Fortunately, a good plan of action for preparing for “black sky days” can be found in the E-PRO Handbook prepared by the Electric Infrastructure Security (“EIS”) Council. That handbook provides reasonable, cost-effective and common-sense proposals that are needed to restore electrical power after an EMP attack, such as having spare parts, an emergency communications system and repair vehicles available and protected from EMP.

As a practical matter, most electrical public utilities will not take the needed steps to prepare for EMP attacks unless and until they are directed to do so by the regulatory agencies. So it is imperative that the FERC and the state agencies that regulate electrical utilities provide immediate direction and advice on preparing for EMP attacks. The FERC currently has only one commissioner, and does not have a quorum needed to take action. More FERC commissioners need to be appointed immediately.

Our Utah Public Service Commission (“PSC”) should require Rocky Mountain Power to have a plan for hardening the power grid and for restoring service after an EMP attack. It should also require other public utilities be prepared to operate for extended periods of time if electric power is interrupted. A lot can be learned from training sessions that simulate responses to EMP events. Accordingly, the PSC should insist that training sessions be held by the utilities for EMP events, and the PSC should monitor such training sessions.

Utah’s Division of Emergency Management (“DEM”) needs to be prepared to respond to catastrophic EMP events. When I look at the DEM website, it does not appear that much has been done to prepare for EMP events. It takes time to plan a viable strategy for dealing with catastrophic EMP events because it is a complicated issue that requires technical competence and coordinated planning. The DEM needs to develop a plan of action to help mitigate EMP events. If they wait for a crisis to begin to prepare such a plan, it will be too late. If DEM lacks the technical staff or resources to prepare a plan, they should ask for support.

Preparing for an EMP attack is somewhat like buying homeowners insurance. The insurance is affordable and homeowners usually don’t have to rely on it. But if you don’t have it in a crisis, the lack of such insurance can bring financial disaster. Similarly, the failure to pay the fairly nominal costs (according to the FERC) of preparing for EMP events could result in a disastrous result of having no electrical power, transportation, communications, heat, water or food for a long time. It is time to stop ignoring the EMP threat. We don’t want to starve in the dark because we failed to adequately prepare for this kind of emergency.