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Electromagnetic Pulse Attacks: Are We Ready?

01 Jun 2016, Posted in Blog Posts, Blog Posts

A recent Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) report indicates that the United States electric grid is still vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse attacks, despite recommendations made almost 8 years ago to reduce such an occurrence. The susceptibility of the grid to such a phenomenon is an out-of-the-box threat many regulators and policymakers have not adequately anticipated.

An electromagnetic pulse is a sudden immense burst of electric energy that would overload electronic systems on the ground and could essentially fry the grid causing blackouts across large portions of the country. Commenting on the seriousness of such an occurrence, the Heritage Foundation states “an EMP attack has the potential to decimate America’s electrical and technological infrastructure, effectively sending the U.S. back to the 19th Century.” An EMP could come from a high-altitude nuclear explosion or from powerful natural solar flares or lightning storms.

Given that our electricity grid is relatively unprotected, imagine a situation where a sophisticated group of terrorists launch a deliberate EMP attack on our power grids, which results in the part or whole of the national grid being put out of commission. The federal government currently struggles to re-launch power supplies after a severe storm, it can therefore be assumed that a deliberate attack would take months, maybe even years to restore. Some projections suggest that up to 90 percent of the population could die from starvation, dehydration, illness, and violence under such a scenario.

A 2008 report by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack (EMP Commission) made recommendations to reduce the vulnerability of the grid and enhance its durability. According to the GAO, many of the recommendations have not yet been acted upon. The GAO recommendations, in addition to fulfilling critical aspects of the EMP Commission proposal, call for the Department of Homeland Security to “identify internal roles to address electromagnetic risks” and collect better data to achieve greater assessment of the issues. Further, that DHS work with the Department of Energy to identify the critical infrastructure elements and prioritize improvement projects.

The issue of EMP attacks, brings up the greater question of America’s grid security. In this age of terrorism, a targeted attack on America’s energy grid in any form can have absolutely crippling effects. The source does not have to be as complicated as an EMP attack but maybe as simple as a homemade bomb. A recent article published by The Hill on the vulnerability of our energy grid quotes a report from the University of Cambridge, which states a power outage in the East Coast would leave approximately 93 million people in darkness. Energy grid attacks are not a mere aspect of imagination. In fact, Russian hackers penetrated Ukraine’s power grid last year and caused power loss to almost 225,000 people: A startling reminder of reality!

Our economy, government, and individual citizens rely on strong infrastructure and are dependent on steady supply of electricity. Focus on increased grid security and an EMP resistant grid will result in a resilient electricity supply that can withstand terrorist attacks or natural disasters, and could result in a more efficient and smarter grid.