You’ve seen the warnings about an EMP attack, how it would shut down electronics so you couldn’t manage your bank account, fill your car with gas or go through the fast lane at the grocery store, but you’re prepared.
After all, you bought a generator, have a couple cans of gasoline, a few weeks’ worth of food and a plan to make sure your family is safe.
But what would you do when the explosions start?
Yes, explosions, as in the 1980s eruption of flames from a 36-inch natural gas pipeline in the Netherlands, the Bellingham, Wash., blaze in the 1990s when 250,000 gallons of gas leaked into Hannah and Whatcom Creeks and ignited, or the New Mexico blaze that killed 12 and left an 86-foot-long crater in the ground.
That danger would be very present should an electromagnetic pulse event or attack strike, according to experts on the issue.
In fact, a 2008 report from the nation’s EMP Commission specifically cited concerns about the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition, or SCADA, systems that control large sections of American industry and commerce.
In the 1980s, there was a large explosion at a 36-inch natural gas pipeline in the Netherlands. A SCADA system about a mile from the naval port of Den Helder had been affected by a naval radar system when the radio frequency from the radar caused the SCADA system to open and close a large gas flow-control valve at the radar scan frequency, resulting in pressure waves that traveled down the pipeline and eventually caused the pipeline to explode.
Then in Bellingham in the late 1990s, there was a similar event in which a SCADA malfunction caused a gas pipeline to rupture and explode. Some 250,000 gallons of gasoline from the pipeline entered the Hannah and Whatcom Creeks. The fuel in the water ignited, killing three people and injuring eight others. The explosions also collapsed the banks of the creek and destroyed over a 1.5-mile section, damaging many buildings near the creek.
In August 2000, a pipeline exploded near Carlsbad, N.M. It was operated by the El Paso Natural Gas Company. The pipelines supplied electric utilities in Arizona and Southern California. As a result of the explosion, 12 people, including five children, were killed. The explosion, which left an 86-foot-long crater, occurred due to maintenance failures caused by an EMP event.
A 2008 EMP Commission report had forecast the troubles.
The EMP Commission called them the “ubiquitous robots of the modern age” and said the SCADA was important due to the interdependence of systems – and consequently new vulnerabilities. But the report also cited technologies that have “facilitated this growing interdependence (since they are) common across the many individual infrastructures.”
The EMP Commission pointed out that control systems and mutual interdependence are two of the most important aspects of modern infrastructures that pose the greatest vulnerability in all of the country’s infrastructures.
“While conferring economic benefit and enormous new operational agility, the growing dependence of our infrastructures on these omnipresent control systems represents a new vector of vulnerability in the evolving digital age of the 21st century, such as cyber security,” the commission said.
SCADAs are major electronic control systems that are used for data acquisition and control over large critical infrastructures that are distributed over large geographical areas. SCADA systems are especially used in such critical infrastructure applications as electrical transmission and distribution, water management and oil and gas pipelines.
In this connection, the San Diego County Water Authority and San Diego Gas and Electric companies in November 1999 experienced a severe electromagnetic interference to their SCADA wireless networks. Both companies were unable to operate critical valve openings and closings under remote control of their SCADA electronic systems.
The episode prompted technicians to go to remote locations to manually open and close the water and gas valves. If that had not been done, there was the potential for “catastrophic failure” of their water system, according to a letter of complaint at the time by the San Diego County Water Authority to the Federal Communications Commission.
The danger was that some 825 million gallons of water flowing daily would have been released by a ruptured line, causing severe flooding and serious damage and destruction to property.
What was the source of this SCADA failure? It was determined after investigation that it was caused by the radar of a ship some 25 miles off the coast of San Diego.
A SCADA system, often in a remote area, automatically and remotely monitors the operations of such critical systems as utilities and telecommunications. The reporting must be ongoing on the system’s performance, such as voltage or current developed in an electric power plant and the power delivered by regional electrical systems.
For gas companies, the SCADA system records the flow volume in a gas pipeline.
SCADA systems also are critical to measuring the temperature in a nuclear power plant and sending an alarm when it exceeds normal operating conditions.
The SCADA system oversees the entire operation of a system by making adjustments where necessary. If an electrical generating plant, for example, fails due to the loss of a critical hardware component or industrial accident, the SCADA will detect the loss and issue an alert.
In turn, the SCADA will issue commands to other generating plants under its control to increase power output to make up for the loss. All of these actions occur automatically, within seconds and without human involvement.
This all leaves American susceptible to catastrophe should things go wrong.
An EMP event, whether natural or man-made, would cause “unprecedented cascading failures of major infrastructures,” according to William Graham, head of the commission that issued the 2008 EMP report.
“In that event, a regional or national recovery would be long and difficult, and would seriously degrade the safety and overall viability of our nation,” Graham said.
“The primary avenues for catastrophic damage to the nation are through our electric power infrastructure and thence into our telecommunications, energy, transportation and other infrastructures,” Graham said.
“These, in turn can seriously impact our important aspects of our nation’s life, including the financial system, means of getting food, water and medical care to the citizenry, trade and production of goods and services,” he said.
“The recovery of any one of the key national infrastructures is dependent upon the recovery of others,” Graham said. “The longer the outage, the more problematic and uncertain the recovery will be. It is possible for the functional outages to become mutually reinforcing until at some point the degradation of infrastructure could have irreversible effects on the country’s ability to support its population.”
EMP events, of course, could include major flares from the sun in the natural course of events, or a nuclear explosion at altitude above the United States should it be attacked by an enemy.
A small example of the damage already can be seen in various parts of the country hit by snowstorms or flooding.
Superstorm Sandy’s impact in the northeastern part of the U.S. still is being felt, with regions without power months after the fact.
And the EMP commission tested its concerns.
“Based on the testing and analysis … we estimate that a significant fraction of all remote control systems within the EMP-affected area will experience some type of impact,” the EMP commission report said.
It added that even minor effects could significantly affect the processes and equipment being controlled. Even with the limited testing the EMP commission conducted, the report said that the impact will be far greater from a real EMP attack.
“It is not one or a few SCADA systems that (would be) malfunctioning … but large numbers – hundreds or even thousands – with some fraction of those rendered permanently inoperable until replaced or physically repaired,” the EMP commission report said.
In 1994, a severe thunderstorm passed over the Pembroke refinery in the United Kingdom. There were lightning strikes, which resulted in a 43-second power loss and subsequent power dips throughout the refinery.
In turn, numerous pumps and coolers tripped. An explosion then occurred resulting in a number of isolated fires. The explosion was determined to have been caused by flammable hydrocarbon liquid continuously being pumped into a process vessel.
Because of a valve malfunction, the outlet closed. The control valve had shut when the control system indicated that it was open.
“The malfunctioning process control system did not allow the refinery operations to contain the situation,” the report said. “As a result of this incident, an estimated 10 percent of the total refining capacity in the United Kingdom was lost until this complex was returned to service.”
“It is safe to say that no one has planned for, and few have even imagined, a scenario with the loss of hundreds or even thousands of nodes across all of the critical national infrastructures, all simultaneously,” the EMP commission report said. “That, however, is precisely the circumstance contemplated by an EMP attack scenario.”
The problems that result mean other systems or networks would collapse because the first failed.
This problem became apparent in 1991 when a single point of failure inside a telecommunications system of severing a single fiber-optic cable in the New York City region blocked out 60 percent of all calls into and out of New York.
It also disabled all air traffic control functions between Washington, D.C., and Boston, Mass., said to be the busiest flight corridor in the nation. The outage also halted operations of the New York Mercantile Exchange.
“These key interdependencies were always there,” the EMP commission report said, “but they were not recognized as warranting advanced contingency planning, situational awareness in degraded conditions and operational workaround.”