EMP: The Biggest Unaddressed Threat to the Grid

The electricity grid has been characterized as the world’s largest and most complicated machine. The grid, like all machines, requires periodic upgrades and maintenance to prevent outages during the normal course of business, and it can be brought down by various outside forces. Solar flares and cyber attacks have temporarily crippled the machine, but an electromagnetic pulse event would be the “ultimate cyber security catastrophe.”

When North Korea last December successfully launched a satellite into orbit around the Earth, much of the chatter in the news media was about the ability of the rogue nation to reach a U.S. city on the West Coast with a nuclear warhead. Many experts in nuclear proliferation, including U.S. government officials, believe North Korea has a stockpile of a dozen or so nuclear weapons and the technology to produce more.

But for one set of experts, who accept the calculations about the size of the North Korean nuclear arsenal, the advances in the country’s ability to deliver a warhead over vast distances raised another, possibly more troubling, prospect. While North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program probably isn’t yet sophisticated enough to put a warhead onto a specific target thousands of miles away, the country may be able to get close enough to explode a warhead some 50 miles somewhere over the U.S. That’s an easier task.

But the outcome likely would be catastrophic and widespread. As defense analyst Peter Pry has written, North Korea’s successful orbit of a satellite demonstrates its ability “to make an EMP attack against the United States—right now.” That’s a very nasty thought. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House EMP Caucus, told POWER that such an attack would be “a worst case scenario… almost unthinkable.”

Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is a force of nature that can wreak havoc with much of modern electronic infrastructure, as earlier articles in POWER’s publications have discussed in the context of solar storms (see “The Great Solar Storm of 2012?” in the February 2011 issue of POWER). EMP can also be a manmade force. As Pry, a former staffer on a congressional EMP commission and now executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, explains, “Any nuclear weapon detonated above an altitude of 30 kilometers will generate an electromagnetic pulse that will destroy electronics and could collapse the electric power grid and other critical infrastructures—communications, transportation, banking and finance, food and water—that sustain modern civilization and the lives of 300 million Americans. All could be destroyed by a single nuclear weapon making an EMP attack” (Figure 1).

1. Area affected by an electromagnetic pulse, by height of burst. The spread of the EMP is caused by gamma rays hitting the atmosphere at an elevation between 12 and 25 miles altitude, causing rejection of electrons that are then deflected sideways by Earth’s magnetic field. The result is that the EMP pulse is spread over an enormous area. Not shown on this diagram is the magnetic signature of Earth that accentuates the EMP effects south of the pulse and attenuates the effects north. Source: America’s Vulnerability to a Different Nuclear Threat: Electromagnetic Pulse, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder #1272, May 26, 2000

According to Pry, North Korea has been working on a super-EMP weapon for a decade or more. He says that in 2004, a delegation of Russian generals to the first Congressional EMP Commission revealed that the Kim dynasty was working on such a weapon. Nothing since had contradicted that assessment.

Writer F. Michael Maloof, who spent 23 years at the Pentagon trying to keep critical technology out of the hands of rogue nations and groups, told POWER recently that EMP “is the classic asymmetrical weapon for warfare by a country far less powerful than the U.S. Our technology-based society has made us an economic and industrial world power. But it has also made us vulnerable in the case of EMP.” Maloof’s new book, A Nation Forsaken, lays out the EMP threat and those who could threaten the U.S. with an EMP attack. Those nations include not only North Korea but also Iran and Pakistan. Pakistan in particular has a large nuclear weapons stockpile, and the country either encouraged or looked the other way when one of its scientists—now a revered national hero, A.Q. Kahn—diverted European centrifuge uranium enrichment technology to Iran and North Korea.

But the EMP threat extends further down the threat chain than bad state actors in nasty neighborhoods. While a nuclear weapon detonated above a modern country could spread broad havoc, much smaller devices can use pulses of radio frequencies to take out specific targets such as power plants, refineries, electric substations, and the like, arming terrorist groups, disgruntled employees, or addled individuals with asymmetrical weapons that profoundly challenge conventional arms control and police capabilities.

In his book, Maloof describes a hypothetical attack on Washington, D.C., that completely disrupts the nation’s capital and surrounding areas, including communications at the Pentagon. The attackers, he writes, use “small, rifle-sized arms that shoot not bullets but radio frequencies, weapons that can be built for about $400 with easy-to-obtain parts. Think of one of those Super Soaker water guns.” (The U.S. military is, not surprisingly, also looking at the use of electromagnetic forces for weaponry—see the sidebar.)

Maloof also describes how a terrorist cell with a primitive EMP weapon in the back of a panel truck could easily bring down a passenger airplane landing at Washington’s Reagan National Airport. “At the cost of a few thousand dollars in material and know-how, this homegrown terror cell kills more than a thousand people—several hundred passengers on the planes, the rest in the buildings that take the full impact of the crashing planes.”

The visions of Franks, Maloof, Pry, and others about the possibility of an EMP threat have critics, although their critique is directed not directly at the physics of an EMP assault but at the doomsday nature of an attack. Physicist Yousaf Butt, a Federation of American Scientists consultant, wrote last year in The Space Review, “If terrorists want to do something serious, they’ll use a weapon of mass destruction—not a weapon of mass disruption.” He said an EMP attack depends “on complicated secondary effects,” rendering it less fearsome and less likely.

Starfish and Other Denizens of the Deep

U.S. scientists learned of the perverse effects of an EMP in an Atomic Energy Commission 1962 test explosion of a 1.4 megaton warhead over the South Pacific. It was called “Starfish Prime,” one of several tests in the “Operation Fishbowl” series. The blast caused an electrical pulse far beyond what the scientists had calculated, driving their instruments off scale. The explosion caused damage as far away as Hawaii, some 900 miles to the east, where it blew out streetlights, set off burglar alarms, and fried a telephone company microwave repeater.

Subsequent atmospheric tests—Bluegill Triple Prime and Kingfish—further established the unexpected EMP effects, including disrupting the Telstar communications satellite, alerting researchers to the new phenomenon. But EMP remained a largely classified topic for the next 20 years. In 1982, facing a series of challenges on how to base the next generation of strategic ballistic missiles, the MX missile, the Reagan administration began lifting the veil of secrecy around EMP effects. The president (with Executive Order 12400) appointed a panel under the direction of General Brent Scrowcroft to examine issues related to siting the missiles. Among those was the effect of EMP on missile communications.

The Scowcroft Commission concluded that the U.S. missile program was adequately hardened against EMP effects, and the issue largely disappeared from view for another few years. Over the years, the military has spent hundreds of millions of dollars hardening its own infrastructure against an EMP attack.

The problem is the civilian grid (upon which the military also depends for more than 90% of its operations). In 1989, a solar storm caused widespread disruptions in the Northeast, raising the issue graphically, both in terms of solar storms and an intentional attack. Congress got interested in the issue, and in 2001 established a commission to examine the threat of EMPs. In 2004 that commission concluded, “Our vulnerability is increasing daily as our use of and dependence on electronics continues to grow. The impact of EMP is asymmetric in relation to potential protagonists who are not as dependent on modern electronics.

“The current vulnerability of our critical infrastructures can both invite and reward attack if not corrected. Correction is feasible and well within the Nation’s means and resources to accomplish.”

As is often the case with special governmental commissions, nothing came of the 2004 report. In the meantime, an enormous blackout that struck most of the Northeast in 2003 reignited concern about the vulnerability of the U.S. grid. Congress reestablished the EMP commission (http://www.empcommission.org), which issued another report in 2008, calling for national action to address the threat of disruption to critical U.S. infrastructure. The chairman, William Graham, testified to Congress in April 2008, “vulnerability to EMP that gives rise to potentially large-scale, long-term consequences can be reasonably reduced below the level of a potentially catastrophic national problem by coordinated and focused effort between the private and public sectors of our country. The cost for such improved security in the next 3 to 5 years is modest by any standard—and extremely so in relation to both the war on terror and the value of the national infrastructures threatened.”

Graham’s commission estimated the cost of hardening the grid and other critical infrastructure at $10 billion to $20 billion over 20 years. Mitigation involves, among other tasks, developing backup capability for grounded transformers, which would be among the most significant components of the grid to be damaged by an EMP attack. This would also protect against the effects of a large-scale solar storm hitting the grid.

Again, to date, nothing has been done.

Think Globally, Act Locally?

Peter Pry cries out for a national response, calling for a presidential executive order, which the EMP commission has drafted, “to protect the national electric grid and other critical infrastructures from an EMP attack.”

The lack of a federal government response, despite what he believes is the clear nature of the threat, led Michael Maloof to title his book A Nation Forsaken. He told POWER, “The federal government isn’t going to do anything.” The feds, Maloof argues, are so paralyzed by partisan divisions and fights over spending cuts that a fully national response won’t work.

The federal government, he says, “never takes preventative action.” He gives Congress credit for creating the two EMP commissions but adds, they “then ignored them. The federal government has failed, and so the nation is behind the curve. The Department of Homeland Security should be taking the lead on this, but isn’t.”

So Maloof says he’s been traveling to U.S. states to encourage state and local responses. “This is a new states’ rights issue,” he says. “People can take action at the state level. I’m traveling around suggesting people get together with their local emergency response agencies and coordinators” to plan for an EMP contingency.

Despite legislative failures in the past, Franks and his 13-member bipartisan caucus hope to move EMP legislation in the 113th Congress. “Two years ago,” he said, “we got the Grid Act passed unanimously in the House.” But it failed to pass in the Senate, largely because of concerns about the inclusion in the House bill of provisions related to cybersecurity. Now he’s preparing legislation that will separate out cybersecurity from the EMP issue. “It’s not that we don’t take cybersecurity seriously,” he said. “An EMP event would be the ultimate in a cybersecurity catastrophe.” But as a practical matter, the cyber threat has to get dealt with on its own.

There is also an artifact of the evolution of the U.S. electric grid that may also help the country survive an EMP attack, whether a result of solar storms or an angry North Korean dictator. Because there is no national grid, but three separate, loosely interconnected systems, an EMP event likely would lead to islanding and isolating the grids.

Indeed, inside the three major grids—the Eastern and the Western interconnections and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas—the interconnections are weak enough that islanding will also occur. For many policy experts who have worked on grid issues for years, eliminating islanding is a goal, because it defeats the concept of economic power dispatch. But Ben McConnell, a retired Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist, told a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission meeting last year, “One of the best ways to protect the grid is to go into islanding mode.” (See “The Electric Grid: A Civilization’s Achilles Heel?” in the January 2013 issue of POWER.)

Ultimately, the federal government may be helping to develop a response to EMP. Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) are working on ways to increase the resilience of the electric grid. In a briefing paper, INL scientists Craig Rieger and Ray Grosshans describe how they are working on “resilient control system technologies that adapt and transform in real time to both failures and attacks. Truly resilient systems intelligently route around broken system components to avoid cascading failures. Resilient systems draw on reserve resources to sustain life-safety systems. And resilient systems focus human attention on the problems machines either can’t or shouldn’t solve alone.

“The development of such technologies will underpin next-generation designs for critical infrastructure, including chemical plants, refineries, nuclear facilities and defense systems, the failure of which causes even greater risk than the loss of use.”

Kennedy Maize is executive editor of MANAGING POWER and a POWER contributing editor.