For decades government policy experts and scientists have known about the dangers of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) events which could cripple large sections of the power grid for long periods of time. EMP disturbances occur naturally, through solar storms. They could also happen due to high-altitude nuclear bomb detonations or through on-the-ground attacks by terrorists or saboteurs.
While the U.S. has been able to avoid a major EMP event for decades, it must play catch up on preparations. The U.S. Department of Defense has long fortified key military installations against potential EMP attacks, but there have been few steps taken to protect the civilian power grid.
On March 26, President Trump issued an executive order to coordinate the activities of the highest levels of the U.S. government to identify and take key near-term actions to protect the American grid, while also laying the foundation for longer-term, sustainable measures.
There is serendipity in the timing. Much of America’s electric grid is old and due for an overhaul, making now an ideal time to cost-effectively address EMP issues.
Below is a summary of some of the key events and studies that have given us ample warning of the dire effects of EMP events and the need to take protective, pre-emptive actions.
September 1, 1859 – As reported in 1859 and 2013 by The New York Times, a massive solar storm known as the Carrington Event hurls billions of tons of electrons and protons to the earth. This results in electrical shocks to telegraph operators in Europe and the United States, while also setting telegraph papers on fire. The consequences of a similar event today would be catastrophic, as discussed in the entries below for 2008 and July 23, 2014.
1950s – Electronic equipment fails because of induced currents and voltages from U.S. nuclear tests.
November 1961 – The Air Force Special Weapons Center issues a report on Operation Fishbowl the primary objective of which was to “obtain data regarding the interference to radar and communication systems produced by a high altitude nuclear burst.”
July 9, 1962 – A single nuclear weapon, code-named ‘Starfish Prime’ is detonated at an altitude of 250 miles and approximately 900 miles southwest of Hawaii. From that distance, it damages the state’s electrical system knocking out 300 streetlights, setting off burglar alarms and shutting down telephone lines.
1962 – The Soviet Union conducts three high-altitude nuclear detonations in South Central Asia. According to a Congressional report: “They report that on each shot they observed damage to overhead and underground buried cables at distances of 600 kilometers. They also observed surge arrestor burnout, spark-gap breakdown, blown fuses, and power supply breakdowns.”
March 13, 1989 – The entire province of Quebec, Canada suffers an electrical blackout from a solar storm, caused by explosions on the sun. The effects reverberate to the United States where 1,560 megawatts of power, enough electricity for about 1,300,000 homes, are lost in New York and New England. Reserve power prevented U.S. communities from losing electricity, despite the large energy loss.
October 2000 – The Congressionally-mandated Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack is established by the Fiscal Year 2001 Defense Authorization Act. Its mission includes assessing, “The feasibility and cost of hardening select military and civilian systems against EMP attack.”
July 22, 2004 – A report by the Congressional EMP Commission warns of potential catastrophe: “The electromagnetic fields produced by weapons designed and deployed with the intent to produce EMP have a high likelihood of damaging electrical power systems, electronics, and information systems upon which American society depends.”
2008 – The National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, issues an in-depth report, Severe Space Weather Events. It warns, “Collateral effects of a longer-term outage would likely include, for example, disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure.” The damage could exceed $2 trillion, 20 times the cost of Hurricane Katrina.
April 29, 2008 – A report from the Congressional EMP Commission warns, “The electromagnetic pulse generated by a high altitude nuclear explosion is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences. The increasingly pervasive use of electronics of all forms represents the greatest source of vulnerability to attack by EMP.”
September 20, 2010 – United Kingdom Defence Secretary Dr. Liam Fox tells a security conference that rogue states such as North Korea and Iran could use nuclear weapons to attack Britain’s vital communications and electricity networks from space.
July 23, 2014 – NASA reports that a major EMP Solar storm like the 1859 Carrington Event has a 12 percent chance of occurring in the next decade.
May 27, 2015 – An open letter to President Obama, signed by 31 military and national security experts begins by saying, “We need your personal intervention to provide for the protection of the American people against an existential threat posed by natural and manmade electromagnetic pulse.” It continues, “Both Republicans and Democrats have known how to deal with this issue for at least thirty years but have done nothing about it. Bipartisan efforts in Congress have failed in spite of the fact that neither technology nor expense should be an issue.”
Signatories include retired Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Admiral James Stavridis (NATO Supreme Allied Commander from 2009-13) and Ambassador James Woolsey, former Director of Central Intelligence.
July 2017 – A report by the Congressional EMP Commission calls for strong action, “The Commission strongly recommends that implementation of cybersecurity for the electric grid and other critical infrastructures include EMP protection … The Commission also recommends electric grid equipment with long-replacement times such as large power transformers be tested to system failure.”
November 28, 2018 – The U.S. Air Force Electromagnetic Defense Task Force issues a report based on insights from 135 military and civilian experts. It notes, “The window of opportunity to mitigate some electromagnetic threats is closing.”
March 26, 2019 – President Trump issues the Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses.
About the Author: Paul Steidler is a Senior Fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.
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