Sandia LabNews

Sandia works to protect electric grid from solar threats, nuclear detonation

Image of sun
SANDIA VS. THE SUN — The sun emitted a strong solar flare, peaking at 2:55 p.m. MT, on Dec. 31. This flare is classified as an X5.0 flare. In 2023, the Earth was hit by 12 flares classified as X-class, the most powerful type of solar flare, more than the past five years put together. A Sandia team is working to assess and mitigate geomagnetic disturbances that can be caused by solar flares like these. (Image by NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory)

Whether a threat comes from the far reaches of space or a foreign adversary, Sandia scientists are helping to protect the nation’s utility communications systems from forces capable of disrupting our way of life.

Our sun is at the peak of the 11-year cycle called the solar maximum, a time when its magnetic poles flip back and forth, creating violent solar flares. These flares of plasma and radiation slam into the Earth, potentially disrupting terrestrial communications and satellites. In 2023, the Earth was hit by 12 flares classified as X-class, the most powerful type of solar flare, more than the past five years put together. These phenomena constitute a grave risk for the nation and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that 2024 will be just as active as 2023.

Working with Department of Homeland Security sponsors, a team of Sandia researchers has helped assess vulnerabilities in the communications infrastructure at electric utilities and develop mitigations to minimize service disruptions should a geomagnetic disturbance or electromagnetic pulse event occur.

The natural phenomenon of solar flares can produce the longer-wavelength magnetic signals found in geomagnetic disturbances, which have the potential to disrupt communications equipment. But the real threat to utility communications systems and their computer networks comes from the quick bursts of high-voltage current that would be caused by an electromagnetic pulse event. The only source of such an event would be an intentional nuclear detonation in Earth’s atmosphere, an act some foreign adversaries are capable of performing.

“It’s smart to be aware of what threats are out there in the world, and what we might do if those events take place,” said electrical engineer Jeffrey Carlson, who was the project’s principal investigator before his retirement in August 2023. “An EMP of only a short duration could take out a good portion of our electric infrastructure. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

The effort was funded by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate in response to the 2019 presidential executive order “Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses.” The order declared a national emergency to address adversarial threats to information and communications technology and services.

Jeff led a team of Sandia scientists who visited electric utilities in 2021 and 2022, conducting research in two phases. Phase 1 focused on determining how vulnerable a utility’s communications infrastructure was to electromagnetic pulses and geomagnetic disturbances. Phase 2 looked at which commercial technologies could mitigate communication system failures. Findings on the risks and mitigation options were reported to the Department of Homeland Security, tasked with protecting critical infrastructure sectors vital to the nation’s security.

This research — referred to by team members as the EMP Comms Project — is part of Sandia’s Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security subprogram efforts. The work brought together Sandia experts in communication systems and infrastructure resilience from throughout the Labs to develop and deliver their objective assessments of prioritized mitigation options to the Department of Homeland Security. In addition to Jeff, the EMP Comms Project team includes project manager Steve Glover, researcher Ross Guttromson and new principal investigator Dave Schoenwald.

“There are a lot of threat vectors to consider and a growing awareness of our vulnerability,” Jeff said. “No tech is needed to deliver an EMP weapon that can inflict severe damage. All that’s needed is a spy balloon passively floating above the U.S. We are doing everything we can as fast as we can to understand the full impact and protect our critical infrastructure from one of these nuclear events.”

According to Ross, failure of the communications infrastructure at one location could lead to a cascading loss of service across large regions or even the entire country. If, for example, a damaged substation communications cable can’t send a status update to a power-generating facility, it would be enough to trigger widespread disruptions.

“There are many ways comms can fail,” Ross said. “We could lose one substation, and no one would lose a wink of sleep. But if we extrapolate what it means to lose many substations at once, the consequence would be very large.”

Additional projects at Sandia, other DOE national labs and government facilities continue to explore a variety of methods to protect infrastructure from electromagnetic pulses. They found that customized shielding solutions, which take time to manufacture and install, may not be the best answer.

“DHS wants us to primarily focus on off-the-shelf mitigations with broad application,” Jeff said, though he noted that all communications equipment is not created equal. Equipment from the same manufacturer with the same technical specs can be very different under the hood. “We found the same device type can have different failures during an EMP event.”

It is challenging to create real-world electromagnetic pulse conditions to test off-the-shelf solutions, but the team has access to Sandia’s massive test facility in Albuquerque that can generate a wide range of electric fields, allowing researchers to test various equipment under a myriad of conditions. Experiments were conducted using Sandia’s Z Machine, the world’s largest pulsed-powered accelerator, and the world’s largest Gigahertz Transverse Electromagnetic test chamber.