By Gary Teeler, Chief of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, IPSA Emerging Technologies Committee Member
Though there have been numerous technological advancements in modern civilization, a reliance on electrical energy in the modern world leaves us more vulnerable than ever to the aftermath of an Electromagnetic Pulse event. The potential effects of an EMP event on the U.S. power grid would likely be devastating to a degree of incomprehension.
An EMP first occurred in 1945, following the detonation of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Scientist noted that after the blasts the atmosphere was saturated with an excess of electrons for several months.
The true forces of EMP were later realized in 1962 as a byproduct of a 1.4 megaton nuclear missile detonation at an altitude of 248 miles over Johnson Island, in the Pacific Ocean. Though this military exercise, named Starfish Prime, took place in a remote part of the ocean, locations as far away as Hawaii, California and Australia experienced radio disruptions. At least six satellites were also disabled by the EMP.
The effects on certain electronic equipment over very large expanses, opened eyes to the potential dangers.
Just over 100 years earlier, in 1859, a natural phenomenon occurred which had similar effects. Now known as the Carrington Event, this severe solar storm effectively knocked out telegraph networks on four continents, which required replacement of the trans-Atlantic telegraph system.
Today’s EMP threat types
EMP threats come in many forms, including electromagnetic attacks, cyberattacks, direct physical attacks and solar geomagnetic disturbances (GMD).
Electromagnetic weapons can range from small suitcase sized radio frequency (RF) energy devices, up to nuclear weapons detonated at a high altitude creating an electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) over a selected target.
HEMP attacks: The area impacted by a HEMP attack is related to the height at which the detonation occurs. The higher the altitude of the detonation, the larger the radius of the area effected by EMP.
Cyberattacks: Any cyberattacks related to EMP come in the form of attacks directly to power grid infrastructure. It’s critical for all emergency responders to understand that these cyberattacks occur daily, and can result in serious damage or failure of equipment, impacting hundreds of thousands of customers. Further, cyberattacks can even be carried out by hackers far removed from the physical location.
Direct physical attacks: Direct physical attacks come in the form of small arms attacks directly to electrical substations. These key pieces of infrastructure are often in plain view, lack hardened casing and are typically located simply behind chain link fencing. This makes for an easy target even with handguns and shoulder weapons.
GMD attacks: Geomagnetic disturbances can be considered the mother nature form of EMP. These naturally occurring solar storms can produce an effect very like a nuclear based HEMP attack. For example, in July 2012 the Earth reportedly missed a super storm of the magnitude of the previously mentioned Carrington Event by only nine days.
One can only imagine how different the effects would have been versus effects that occurred in the 1859 event.
Who are EMP attackers?
The entities that might carry out EMP attacks come in many forms including state actors, non-state actors and even naturally occurring events with no actors.
State actors generally include North Korea, Iran, China and Russia. These countries have made overt statements regarding EMP, HEMP, RF attacks and physical and cyberattacks on the grid. Additionally, these countries possess nuclear capabilities which could support a HEMP attack.
Non-state actors could be global terrorist organizations or individual actors such as hackers. Not to be overlooked is the unpreventable threat posed by mother nature, which can come at any time and location, and can be of an extreme magnitude.
What can happen during an EMP attack?
Imagine airplanes falling from the sky, vehicles not functioning and all power/utility/electrical networks deteriorating at the same time. While this may sound incredibly fictional, it’s not. It’s about as real as it gets.
When an EMP attack occurs, you can count on chaos. All emergency responders will be incredibly challenged to communicate with one another and effectively responding.
Typically, the goal of an EMP attack is to take out the power grid. Loss of a portion of the power grid would likely result in cascading losses to remaining portions of the grid.
Unlike a temporary power outage, there may be no existing mechanism to get power back to the affected area. The EMP will have effectively destroyed the grid infrastructure, including power transformers. These expensive pieces of infrastructure take extended periods to manufacture, are often aged and lack redundancy at most sites.
Each of the 16 Critical Infrastructures, as identified in the Presidential Policy Directive – Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience, would be critically affected by failure of the electrical grid. The effects on transportation and communication alone would hamper the efforts of first responders and utility workers.
Backup systems and processes in place for a power failure would likely last only as long as there is onsite fuel supply. This is of concern at nuclear power plants, where cooling of the reactor core requires electricity.
When the backup generator runs out of fuel, the result would be a melt-down. On a related note, the backup fuel supply at a reactor site is only required to support one week of operation. In other words, your Plan B better be good.
Survival and risk mitigation
Individuals in the modern world will not be prepared for life without electricity. The Congressional EMP Commission reported that nine out of 10 Americans would die within the first year of a prolonged nationwide blackout. Water and food would be in short supply, resulting in starvation and disease.
Unsanitary conditions, civil unrest and a limited ability to protect the country would be the eventual result.
While this does not paint a pretty picture, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate effects, including hardening of infrastructure facilities, redundancy of certain equipment and removing capabilities of adversaries.
An EMP attack is high impact low frequency (HILF) event, which poses unique challenges for support and funding. To properly mitigate risk and protect infrastructure will require a considerable public and private partnership. There is a duty to act to protect the quality of life we have become accustomed to, and there are steps that can be taken to secure the grid.
We must collectively decide it is a national priority.
About the Author
Gary Teeler has 21 years of service in public safety and currently serves as the Chief of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Gary has a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice Leadership and Management from Sam Houston State University, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice Law Enforcement from Texas State University. He is a certified Texas Peace Officer, Certified Emergency Manager (CEM), and a graduate of the 256th Session of the FBI National Academy. Gary serves on the IPSA Emerging Technologies Committee and as an adjunct professor at South University in Austin.
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IPSA or any agency of the government.