Rep. Roscoe Bartlett On Securing The Grid

America's electric grid is vulnerable to attack from electromagnetic weaponry, and building a smart grid might make it worse, says Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD). Bartlett, a former research scientist and engineer, offers his solution for securing U.S. electronics from attack.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. What if someone could set off a bomb that didn't kill people but killed your electronic devices, fried them instead? So rather than going to hospital emergency rooms, victims - ordinary citizens, banks, schools, government agencies - would be scrambling to get their computers, their phones, their cars working again.

Sounds like something from a science fiction movies, doesn't it? Well, it's not. It's called EMP, electromagnetic pulse, and we first heard a lot about it back in 1981, remember then? One big blast from an EMP pulse would send all of us scrambling and practically shut down our economy.

Well, we haven't heard much about it since then, but my next guest has revived EMP because he says that upgrading the nation's electricity system to a smart grid could make the problem even worse. He has been sounding the alarm about the vulnerability to what's called an E-bomb, and he has Congress's ear on the problem since he is a member of the House Science and Technology Committee.

Congressman Roscoe Bartlett is a Republican who represents Maryland's Sixth District. He has a Ph.D. in human physiology. He has taught and worked as a research scientist and engineer. He ran his own land development company, holds several patents. He was in the business of installing solar panels on roofs decades ago, back then in the Carter years. Congressman, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Representative ROSCOE BARTLETT (Republican, Maryland): Happy to be on. Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Why are you bringing this issue up now to the forefront? Is it because you're fearful that we would be more vulnerable with a smart grid?

Rep. BARTLETT: Well, the more sophisticated we become, the more vulnerable we are. Our grid is now at the tipping point. Almost everybody knows that. There's a huge concern about cyber-attacks on the grid, and that would be a pretty mild effect compared to what a really robust EMP lay-down would do.

Our only real-life experience with that was in 1961 over Johnston Island out in the Pacific, when we detonated a nuclear weapon high above the atmosphere and were really surprised when we had electrical and electronic effects in Hawaii about 800 miles away.

The Soviets, the Russians, now have very much more experience than we have had. They have actually built EMP-enhanced weapons, and the Russian generals told the EMP Commission that the Soviets have developed, and they had EMP weapons that would produce 200 kilovolts per meter at the center and a weapon that made it 300 miles high over Iowa, line of sight, would blanket the whole United States, and the pulse would be 100 kilovolts per meter at the margins of the country, and that is about twice anything we ever designed to or protected from.

So it would really be quite devastating. What it would mean is that all microelectronics across the country would be shut down. That means you have no power, you will not have power for a very long time. I was talking to one of the top officials in the federal government the other day in FERC, and he told me that he thought that it might be as much as two or three years before we could get some of the large transformers which would go out.

We don't even make those anymore. They're made overseas. There are none on the shelf. You order one and they will build one for you. So this is potentially a very, very serious event.

FLATOW: So we're not worried about terrorists getting a small weapon that doesn't have to be nuclear for an EMP. We're worried about the Russians.

Rep. BARTLETT: Well, no, we're worried about terrorists too, because any nuclear weapon, even a small, crude one and a Scud launcher, which they can buy for about $100,000, and any Tramp steamer, and they can launch this weapon.

They couldn't shut down the whole country. They couldn't get that far with a Scud, but they could shut down all of New England, which would be Katrina at least 10 times over.

You know, we may avoid this, but there's one event that we will not avoid, and that is a solar electromagnetic interference, solar storm. If we have a big one like the one that occurred back in 1859, that would shut down the whole grid for quite a long while. That was an enormous storm.

FLATOW: So is there a - considering that those are two possibilities, I mean, you can't do anything about the sun - is there a technical fix?

Rep. BARTLETT: Oh, yes. Yeah, they can fix it. My understanding is it would cost about $100 million to protect much of the grid, but if the grid went down, it would cost us between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, damages, and the loss of life could be horrendous if in fact you were without electricity for months at a time.

FLATOW: Well, 100 million doesn't sound like a lot of money.

Rep. BARTLETT: No, you know, that was only one-tenth of one billion, and there were 700 of those billions in the stimulus package. This is a trifling amount of money, and we ought to be doing it. We should have been doing it a long time ago.

FLATOW: Well, and the stimulus package, I would think, could put people to work doing something like this.

Rep. BARTLETT: This would have been a good thing to do. There were a lot of good things to do with the stimulus package that we didn't do.

FLATOW: Did we do any - I know you've very interested in alternative energy, and I've seen you speak in Maryland, saying that you were green before it was good to be green, installing solar homes.

Rep. BARTLETT: Oh yes, I built solar homes way back in the late '70s and early '80s, during the Carter years, and we have a second home, which is off-grid and has its own solar and wind power and battery storage.

FLATOW: Do you think that the stimulus package has enough money in it for alternative energy research?

Rep. BARTLETT: No.

FLATOW: You'd like to see more?

Rep. BARTLETT: You know, they've only spent a small fraction of the stimulus money, and many of the things that they could have done to really advance technology and make us less vulnerable in the future, they haven't done. I have no idea what their agenda was with the stimulus money, but obviously it hasn't been much of a stimulus because here we are, still bogged down in the recession.

FLATOW: Why - when - you were green back in the '70s. When did this become a political football? When did alternative energy become political? Why was it not evident to both parties that this is a good thing for the country? Why - you know, we watched Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the roof like you were doing in your homes, and then we saw Ronald Reagan rip them off the roofs. Why did this happen?

Rep. BARTLETT: Well, you know, I'm not sure. Jimmy Carter gave a great speech. He wasn't the communicator that Reagan was, but if you dust that speech off, it would be a great speech to give today. He was exactly right. We were living on borrowed time then, and we now have frittered away the time that we had from Carter until now. We should have been developing alternative energies.

So now we face a real crisis. When we come out of this recession, the truth is that never, ever again can the world have sustained good times unless we do something about alternative energy because of our dependence on oil.

As soon as the economies around the world start to be good again, the demand for oil will go up. Oil will hit $100, $150, $200 a barrel again, and it will stifle the economy.

There was a major study that was paid for by the U.S. government, and the study - the Hearst Report, and it said that if you did not anticipate reaching the maximum production of oil by a decade, you would have really meaningful economic effects. Well, we're now there, apparently, and that just compounds the problem that would be produced by EMP.

You know, it's a world in which the only person you can talk to is the person next to you, and the only way you can go anywhere is to walk. There are a couple of exceptions.

If you're a ham operator with a vacuum-tube set, you can talk to another ham operator with a vacuum-tube set. They're a million times less susceptible to EMP, and if you happen to be the proud owner of an Edsel or a similar vintage automobile with coil and distributor, that's probably going to be just fine.

FLATOW: So do you think we need to go back to the future for some of those technologies to survive?

Rep. BARTLETT: Well, I think we need to harden our grid. I think - even the military has waived hardening it. During the years when we had - Clinton years, and we did not have enough money, they waived EMP hardening on their equipment. So now much of the equipment we have is not EMP-hardened, and the only enemy against which we need this equipment is a peer, and the first thing that the peer would do, it's in all of their open literature, and it's in all of their war games. There will be a robust EMP lay-down and deny us the use of all of our equipment which is not EMP-hardened, and now that's most of our equipment.

By the way, there's a third source of energy that could be very disruptive, and that is small, directed energy weapons, IEMI, intentional electromagnetic interference, and if these are strong enough, they could, one of them going down Wall Street for instance, could just devastate our financial system.

FLATOW: So what kind of protection can you harden it with? What can you put in there?

Rep. BARTLETT: Well, these are surge protectors but very special surge protectors, because the usual surge protector for electricity won't work for nuclear EMP because the rise time is in nanoseconds, and it's already through the surge protector before the surge protector sees it. But there are hardening techniques.

For new equipment it costs five to 10 percent more, maybe not even that much more. If you try to harden the equipment after it's made, already made, it may be very, very expensive to harden it then. So this hardening should be built in.

It's not all that difficult. There's a major report out by the EMP Commission, and they have spent a lot of time and taken a really in-depth look at this, and you know, hardening the grid so that we would be survivable is not all that difficult. You just need to do it, and we need leadership to do it.

It's a tough thing, and people just - you know, they just shy away from it. Some things are too good to be true. Therefore they're probably not true. This is so horrific that most people say, gee, that just can't be true. But it is true, and there's now a major concern in the Congress.

There's a bill in the House, and there's a bill in the Senate, and the Pentagon is now taking a new, fresh look at EMP and looking at where they are and what they need to do. So I'm very pleased that there's a resurgence of interest across the country, and so I thank you for your voice of reason and getting this information out to the general public.

FLATOW: When will we see the bill will make it to the floor for a vote, do you think?

Rep. BARTLETT: Oh, I have no idea. It's got to go through the Energy and Commerce Committee. It's come out of Homeland Security Committee, and it's a good bill to come out of Homeland Security Committee. I'm on that bill, and it looks at cyber-threats, and it looks at physical threats to the grid.

Everybody's looking at cyber-threats, but I tell you, those cyber-threats are fairly trifling compared to what these physical threats could be.

FLATOW: What do you think about people who are critical of you, who say it's just a made-up threat, it's really a tempest in a teapot?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. BARTLETT: I wish they were right. I wish they were right that it's a made-up threat. No, it is not. It is real. You can go to the literature in every one of our potential enemies, and in all of the open literature and all of their war games, an EMP lay-down is just about the first thing they do because it is the most asymmetric weapon out there.

My wife tells me I shouldn't be talking about this, or I'll give people ideas. I tell her, gee, maybe not one in 50 Americans knows about this, but 100 percent of all our potential enemies knows all about it, and it's in all of their open literature and all of their war games.

FLATOW: All right, Congressman, thank you for taking time to talk with us. Have a good weekend.

Rep. BARTLETT: Thank you, Sir.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, Republican from Maryland's Sixth District, talking about legislation now in Congress to try to prevent EMP, electromagnetic pulse, which theoretically could, you know, fry all the electronic devices if you get them and don't harden them up to do that.

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