A nuclear detonation in the upper atmosphere creates an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a powerful, damaging electromagnetic field covering a subcontinent-scale region.
Due to the extremely wide-area impact of an EMP attack, a comparatively small terrorist group or adversary nation could use it to cause massive disruption. It is important to note that, due to the statistical nature of field characteristics, most conventional computers and low-voltage electronics will likely be unaffected and available to be reenergized if power grid operation can be restored – a key factor in enabling cost-effective power grid protection strategies – and in preserving the viability of most of the customer “load” that will also be essential to such strategies.
Based on the full range of U.S. and international government studies, laboratory hardware vulnerability tests, and U.S. and Russian nuclear testing, an EMP strike on an unprotected power grid would cause an extended duration, subcontinent-scale power outage, and would precipitate cascading, direct and indirect failures of all other critical societal infrastructures.
Expanding EMP concerns have brought some leading corporations to begin adapting their “grid restart” planning (black start and restoration). These corporations are working to increase their systems’ EMP protection, and also utilizing emerging “minimum grid” and related restoration planning to ensure societally vital lifeline infrastructure facilities can be reenergized quickly enough to sustain the communities that depend upon them.
Given the scale of modern interdependencies, the success of such efforts will also depend on the broad availability of tools and capabilities essential for multi-corporate communication, situational awareness, and emergency power continuity in such events.1
EMP has been studied and addressed diligently as a military threat for over 50 years. In the United States, EMP has been treated by DOD as an active, growing hazard for decades. In 2011 the U.S. Defense Science Board renewed and highlighted this policy, issuing an interim report citing progress, coupled with ongoing recommendations for EMP survivability of certain DOD assets. In 2015, DOD expanded these recommendations to mandate EMP protection of “all mission-critical facilities,” and announced its plans to reopen, upgrade and reoccupy the Cheyenne Mountain military complex due to its intrinsic EMP-protected characteristics.
The Congressional EMP Commission noted that deterring attacks from terrorists who acquire nuclear weapons would be especially difficult because “such groups have no state identity, have only one or a few weapons, and are motivated to attack the US without regard for their own safety.”
The United States and its partners abroad conduct a variety of programs to reduce the likelihood that terrorist groups can acquire the nuclear materials and other components necessary for building such weapons. The Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, for example, helps secure nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. While these programs have demonstrated substantial progress in reducing the threat that nuclear materials will be stolen, current estimates assess that, as of January 2012, there were still approximately 1440 tons of highly enriched uranium and around 500 tons of separated plutonium stockpiled globally – providing a vast array of potential targets for terrorists seeking such materials. Other concerns include the increasing proliferation of “nuclear weapon precursor” technology and security concerns associated with the growing stockpiles of nuclear warheads and missiles in the control of unstable or unfriendly nations.
For the most advanced information on electric grid vulnerability and protection measures click here for free digital access or to purchase EPRO® Handbook IV: “EPRO EMP.”
1 For more information on such tools and capabilities, click here.
While utilities and government agencies have made progress in strengthening security against cyber threats, the destructiveness and sophistication of cyber weapons are growing. A successful, severe cyber-attack could cause serious damage to critical infrastructures, on national scales.
An IEMI device creates an electromagnetic pulse, potentially far higher in magnitude than EMP, though over very short ranges. Use of such devices on multiple, critical elements of critical infrastructures could create Black Sky Hazard level impacts.