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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Fighting To Protect the Electric Grid

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By Rich Kellman, Senior Correspondent

"Have you ever considered what would happen if one day all electricity just stopped? Local businessman Henry Schwartz thinks about it a lot. "You'd get up and none of the lights would work. Your radio wouldn't work, the car wouldn't start, your water system would stop. Go to the food store and there wouldn't be any. Everything that we know in the modern world would grind to a halt."

In 2008, an independent congressional commission made up of scientists and military experts warned that an electromagnetic pulse generated by a nuclear blast high above the earth could critically damage or destroy our electric grid.

Henry Schwartz's business runs on electricity. He owns Steuben Foods in Elma and employs some 500 people. They manufacture and package food and medical supplies. About three years ago, he became deeply concerned about EMP and formed a not-for-profit organization called EMPact America. "(EMP is) more of a threat than nuclear devices exploded in 10 of our cities at the same time," he says.

The sun can also generate emp through solar storms. UB physics professor Dr Will Kinney shows us video of the sun spewing a geyser of superheated gas in early June."Blammo," he says, "and that was just last Tuesday. That material travels outward in space and can affect things like communications and the infrastructure on the earth."

At risk are more than 200-thousand miles of transmission lines across North America. In 1989, a blast of hot solar gas knocked out power for six million people in and around Quebec for about 9 hours. "It's entirely possible that we could see large outages again from these kinds of solar storms," says Kinney, "but those regional outages didn't result in cascading failures."

But back in 1859, a huge supersolar storm, far bigger than the one that caused the Quebec blackout, shorted out telegraph wires in the United States and Europe and caused fires. The northern lights were seen as far south as Rome, and the world was not wired then as it is today.

What are the odds of that happening again? Says Will Kinney,"Nobody really knows for sure."

Anthony Caruana is Town Supervisor of Tonawanda. "The likelihood may be rare," he says, "but we need to be prepared just in case."

Caruana is a retired Army brigadier general. "I don't think anybody ever believed that 9/11 could happen with airplanes going into massive buildings using our own planes and our own fuel to hit it."

"A lack of imagination?" we suggest.

"A lack of imagination," he says.

In 2008 after eight years of study, the Congressional EMP Commission issued its final report, which focused on EMP as a weapon. We reach senior staff member Dr. Peter Pry in Washington and asked whether the commission considers nuclear EMP a clear and present danger. "Yes, that's correct. the commission did judge that it was a clear and present danger now."

Pry envisions an attack by an enemy that explodes a nuclear bomb in space, 300 miles above the United States. The resulting EMP destroys our entire electrical system. Everything shuts down. "North Korea has the bomb now." he says, "and North Korea will sell anything to anybody."

As for Iran, Pry says, "The Federation of American Scientists put out an estimate that Iran could have enough fuel for several nuclear bombs within five months."

There is debate among some experts about the actual likelihood of the nightmare scenario foreseen in the Commission report. "I certainly think they have the desire and motivation to do what they say," says UB physics professor Dr. Dejan Stojkovic. "Right now, I don't think they have the capabilities to do what they say, but that may change in the near future."

"We are in a very critical position here in our town," says Caruana. "We have a water treatment plant, we have a wastewater plant, we have emergency services, hazardous materials and critical infrastructure."

Tonawanda has a backup generator at its wastewater treatment plant. good for a few weeks, till the fuel runs out. "So if we're doing things protecting our own equipment things here," says Caruana, If it's not done at the next level, we may not even be able to continue to function."

In response to the threat, Congress is considering a bill called the Shield Act to strengthen the nation's electric grid. "I think everybody should get to their congressman and tell them this is a high urgency," says Schwartz.

Caruana calls Schwartz a good neighbor and a patriot."He's dedicated, it looks like, this part of his life, to making sure we're protected."

Henry Schwartz is the sole funder of EMPact America. with its mission of informing the public about EMP.We ask why he's doing that.

"What's in it for me?" he says. "Well, I have a family just like you probably do, and I'd like them to live. I also have another family, and that's the employees that I work with everyday. I have a community, and I have the United States of America, and I want to hold onto them with all my heart and soul. My life wouldn't be worth living if we had an EMP event and we're not prepared. So it's everything."

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