America’s Nuclear Power Plants Vulnerabilities*

By By David J. Stuckenberg* and Hershel C. Campbell**
Monday, January 18th, 2016 @ 5:48PM

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Left: The Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, March 12, 2011 – 

A year-long study found that the present legal and regulatory approach to EMP/Space weather threat to America’s nuclear power plants are inadequate and dangerous. This sorry state is anchored in the industry efforts to maintain safety regulations dating back to the 1980s, and a national security mentality relevant at the end of the Cold War.

This has been successful, in part, due to a campaign to brand nuclear power as a clean, safe source of energy. To their credit, the NRC and industry have demonstrated a commitment to safety where design basis events are concerned. However, EMP and GMD are beyond design basis events. Once these occur, there are no guarantees and few strategies with which to cope. 

There has only been a handful of nuclear disasters in history, and only one in the U.S. – TMI. It is, therefore, understandable from an economic standpoint that industry is resistant to change. However, this inertia has given rise to a complacent regulatory climate absent adaptive and progressive analysis. More than 30 years have elapsed since this topic was last openly addressed. Unfortunately, the assumptions borne of the highly controversial 1982 report continue to misinform decision makers even as recent as 2015. Despite these challenges and an NRC and industry galvanized to maintain the status quo, there are signs of progress. Some push for increased standards and regulations has occurred since Fukushima.

However, these efforts have been met with a tepid response from the nuclear industry. To stave off costly infrastructure updates, the industry responded by holding out the FLEX, a plan that is both impractical and dangerous due to an over-reliance on a functioning national infrastructure. Congress recently found, “The current strategy for recovery leaves the United States ill-prepared to respond effectively to an EMP attack that would potentially result in damage to vast numbers of components nearly simultaneously over an unprecedented geographic scale.” 

As a result, 31 (bi-partisan) members of the House sponsored the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage Act (or the SHIELD Act), to create a mechanism to address the nationwide EMP risk. The Act sought to establish a mechanism whereby the President of the United States (POTUS) along with a specialized commission could designate certain areas and nodes critical to the U.S. infrastructure and security. The Act also provided the POTUS the authority to compel enterprises both public and private to protect key elements of the grid. 

Most importantly, the SHIELD Act would have conferred upon the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission legal authorities, which it currently lacks, to require the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the electric power industry to protect EHV transformers, SCADAS, and other critical components of the bulk power system from natural and manmade EMP. Moreover, if SHIELD were enacted and implemented, by protecting the bulk power system, nuclear reactors would have been protected from the scenario of a protracted nationwide blackout.

The Congressional EMP Commission estimated that the national electric grid could be protected from natural and manmade EMP for about $2 billion and that implementation, on a nonemergency basis, would require 3-5 years. However, lobbying by the electric power industry kept SHIELD from coming to a vote before the House Energy and Commerce Committee for years, until the bill died. 

In November 2015, the House passed by unanimous consent the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (CIPA–HR 1037), which bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to establish a new National Planning Scenario focused on EMP. All federal, state, and local emergency planning, training, and resource allocation is based on the National Planning Scenarios—so CIPA will for the first time require emergency planners and first responders at all levels of government to be EMP educated and begin preparing to survive and recover the nation from an EMP catastrophe. CIPA further requires DHS to develop plans to protect the electric grid and other critical infrastructures from natural and manmade EMP, to evaluate existing technologies and help develop new technologies for EMP protection, and to launch pilot projects to encourage the protection of the electric grid and other critical infrastructures. CIPA currently awaits action by the Senate.


The U.S. must address 21st Century problems with 21st Century prevention-based mitigation strategies that are part of a holistic and common sense approach. This study contends that although the threat to EMP/GMD and its likely impacts on nuclear power stations have been known for some time, both internal and external political pressures have ensured the regulatory and technological status quo for more than three decades. 

However, some steps could be implemented to significantly reduce our vulnerability to EMP and GMD including the addition of requirements to sustain stations, hardening, filters and development of better early warning and detection systems that would allow for grid isolation and shutdown before impact. However, hardening the nation against an EMP or major GMD event will require a total effort directed not only toward critical infrastructure and national resources, but also those that beckon to greater individual and community responsibility relating to issues of sustainment. 

With that in mind, we recommend a holistic approach that strengthens both our nuclear infrastructure and individual communities until a total solution is realized. In a world where America’s adversaries are increasingly innovating, developing, adapting, and accessing conventional and asymmetric weapons capabilities, our nation must make grid protection a top priority. However, the theoretical dichotomy between America’s grid and nuclear power stations and research reactors must be expunged. Our power grid is part of a total system – a system that is required to ensure a safe and prosperous United States, and all of it must be safeguarded if we take our national security seriously

* David Stuckenberg is Chairman of the American Leadership & Policy Foundation and a USAF veteran pilot with experience in the intelligence and strategic arms control communities.

** **Hershel Campbell is Ronald Reagan Research Fellow at the American Leadership & Policy Foundation and a USAF veteran where he served as an intelligence analyst.

* The full study Dangerous Impacts of EMP/Space Weather on Nuclear Power Plants is available here

Categories: 2016, ACD/EWI Blog, CIPA, Congress, EMP, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Fukashima, Latest News, NRC, Nuclear power plant, Power grid, SCADAS, The SHIELD Act

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