JASON on Severe Space Weather and the Electric Grid

12.20.11 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Updated below

The U.S. electric power grid is vulnerable to damage from severe electromagnetic solar storms and remedial measures should be taken to reduce that vulnerability, a new study (large pdf) from the JASON scientific advisory panel concluded.

On the other hand, the JASONs said, catastrophic worst-case scenarios advanced by some are not plausible, and they should not serve as a basis for policy making.

Public disclosure of the new JASON study was blocked by the Department of Homeland Security, which sponsored the analysis.  But a copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

“Concerns about the vulnerabilities of technical infrastructure to space weather have been growing since the sun entered the early stages of the current sunspot cycle in 2009, increasing prospects for severe solar storms,” the report said.

“We agree that the U.S. electric grid remains vulnerable,” the JASONs concluded.  “Mitigation should be undertaken as soon as possible to reduce the vulnerability of the U.S. grid.  The cost appears modest compared to just the economic impact of a single storm,” they added.

But the panel declined to endorse a worst-case scenario proposed in 2010 by J. Kappenman (large pdf), who envisioned “the possibility of catastrophic damage to the U.S. electric grid, leaving millions without power for months to years.”

“We are not convinced that the worst case scenario… is plausible.  Nor is the analysis it is based on, using proprietary algorithms, suitable for deciding national policy,” the JASON report said.

Instead, “a rigorous and fully transparent risk analysis should be done of the U.S. grid.”  See “Impacts of Severe Space Weather on the Electric Grid,” JASON report JSR-11-320, November 2011.

Ironically, the Department of Homeland Security, which requested the JASON study, refused to make it publicly available.  In a November 20 letter to the Federation of American Scientists, DHS said that no portion of the study would be released under the Freedom of Information Act because it was subject to the “deliberative process privilege.”  A copy of the report was obtained independently.

Update: By letter dated December 27, DHS amended its denial of our FOIA request and released the report.