Rep. Trent Franks (R., Ariz.) introduced legislation Tuesday that he said would prevent a catastrophic electromagnetic pulse event from causing large-scale deadly consequences for the U.S. population.
The bill, known as the SHIELD Act, requires industry and government officials to collaborate in the development and implementation of standards to strengthen the nation’s electric grid within six months. Companies would also be obligated to retrofit hardware such as transformers to prevent them from overloading and blowing up in response to an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event.
Franks said such an event could be catastrophic for two-thirds to 90 percent of the U.S. population within a year.
Franks compared the current state of the U.S. electric grid to London before it was ravaged by fires in the 1600s at an "EMP Caucus" event attended by other cyber-infrastructure experts. London lost thousands of homes in the fires and was ill-prepared for them because the city built homes too close together, he said.
"One of the reasons we are now more vulnerable than we ever have been is not because EMP technology has advanced," he said.
"The real problem is we have become victims to our own sophistication. We have engineered our own electric grid to the point of vulnerability."
Former House speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich also spoke at the event about the implications of either a natural or man-made EMP incident. A solar storm, such as one that disrupted the primitive U.S. electric system in 1859, could burn out generators and knock out all of the electricity between New York and Washington, D.C., for two years if it occurred today, Gingrich said.
"There are very few events you can’t recover from," he said. "You can recover from 9/11, from Pearl Harbor. This is really different."
"You could literally see a civilization crash and tear itself apart from fighting for resources internally."
Gingrich also identified the threat posed by missiles with EMP devices that could plunge the nation into darkness and chaos if employed. The U.S. must be prepared for these kinds of attacks even if they do not currently figure into the plans of nations like China, Russia and North Korea, he said.
"You want to make sure that if they change their opinion, you survive the change," he said.
Peter Pry, founder of the Congressional EMP commission, said the majority of the casualties from an EMP event would result from starvation, disease, and financial collapse. The average cost to citizens in preventing such an incident would be comparatively small, he said, at an average increase of 20 cents annually on their electric bills.
Franks said he expects to encounter some resistance to the bill in the Senate and from industry officials worried about granting government too much regulatory power under Section 215 of the Federal Power Act. He plans to allay those concerns by stressing the importance of preparation and the consequences of inaction, he said.
"The more we sweat in peace, the less we bleed in war," he said.