How dangerous is an EMP attack? Scroll to bottom for a video from Dennis Michael Lynch.
Security and intelligence officials — including former CIA Director James Woolsey — have been warning Americans for the past 15 years about how vulnerable the U.S. power grid is to an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. Only now, as North Korea defiantly refuses to back down from its nuclear testing and threatens such an onslaught, is the matter really being discussed.
Unfortunately, U.S. defense and security officials admit that no one really knows what could happen or what to do to protect this country.
“We recognize that an EMP event would have extremely dire consequences for the entire country, but where the challenge comes is in attempting to quantify those impacts,” one high-ranking Department of Homeland Security official, who requested anonymity, told Fox News. “This is not something we have had a lot of real-world experience with.”
North Korean state news threatened the United States earlier this month that it could hit the U.S. with a hydrogen bomb, which, when detonated at a high altitude, would create an EMP that potentially could abolish prominent parts of our electrical grid. The higher the bomb’s detonation, the wider the scope of destruction.
Considering that high-altitude nuclear tests were prohibited in a 1963 treaty, American scientists have little data available to help them understand the potential devastation an EMP would wreak on modern infrastructure.
In 2001, Congress enacted the since-disbanded Commission to Assess the Threat to the U.S. with regards to an EMP event. Commissioners testified that up to 90 percent of Americans could die within a year of such an attack. All the functions communities rely upon — hospitals, water, waste, transport, telecommunications, air control, medical care — could potentially be decimated for not days or weeks, but months or years.
“Our ability to know what would happen in the aftermath is highly uncertain. That being said, we are doing several things to deepen our understanding. There is a lot of information sharing,” noted the official. “We are looking at mitigation strategies and developing planning tools. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is involved too, as there have been exercises and workshops related to catastrophic planning and EMP events. But DHS does not have authority to compel power operators to do anything, we do not have regulatory authority over grid operators.”
Known to be one of the most vital pieces of infrastructure in the country, the U.S. electrical grid serves more than 300 million people, but it does not have one singular oversight body responsible for its safeguarding. This is the reason authorities have cautioned that the magnitude of threat has fallen between the cracks.
“The military doesn’t think it is their job to make the grid resilient, even though 99 percent of their missions in [the] continental United States rely on the civilian grid. The utilities don’t think it is their job because it is a national security problem. Besides, they don’t want to come up with the money, face more regulatory burdens or fool with making over parts of the grid with uncertain technical consequences,” explained Frank Gaffney, Center for Security Policy president, and assistant secretary of the Defense for International Security Policy under President Reagan, who has long warned of EMP’s efficiency to bring down America. “And because of the sweetheart regulatory arrangement they have at the federal level, they have been able to avoid it.”
Individual utilities are ultimately responsible for grid security, but there is no standard mandate in place. The private nonprofit North American Energy Reliability Company (NERC) makes voluntary “best practices” recommendations to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) while the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Energy (DOE) counterpart on security and preparedness efforts.
According to the DHS, financing grid security — given that it doesn’t fall under the responsibility of one particular office — could have been done through slight rate increases, but efforts are typically bound by red tape.
“If utilities want to increase their customer rates by one cent a kilowatt hour to help invest in a new effort for counter-terrorism or EMP they have to go to a public utility commission and convince them that these rate increases are beneficial and meet certain cost/benefit conditions,” said the official. “Frankly, public utility commissions are there to protect consumers and they tend to be skeptical and tend to really push utilities to think very hard about the times they come in and push for rate increases to help support these kinds of efforts. Unlike some other industries where they can immediately pass off costs to consumers, this is not the case with power companies. They are slower to move due to the regulatory environment they have to deal with.”
Risk analyst and policy expert Dennis Santiago warned, “In the end, this process has left the U.S. with antiquated and vulnerable infrastructure. There is no unified or specified commander charged with specifically marshaling America’s resources from the government and private sector into an active defense of the power grid. There are civil services and regulatory bodies mostly focused on energy as utilities but nothing looks like an energy version of a military defense command.”
DHS authorities, in conjunction with the Department of Energy, do say that they made the issue of grid vulnerability higher on the priority list about a year ago. The issue was always secondary to threats considered to be more acute by the intelligence community, such as counter-terrorism post 9/11 and, later, cybersecurity and “more destructive type natural hazards.”
“If something happens in two weeks, we wouldn’t be able to close all the gaps of vulnerability,” pointed out the official. “But having looked at this issue for a number of years, we are taking appropriate action given our set of responsibilities and authorities.”
A spokesperson for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) additionally told Fox News that they are “constantly working with federal partners to identify threats and vulnerabilities that could impact the power grid,” and, in coordination with the federal partners, are working to “mitigate threats and, where appropriate, work with the private sector.”
As if North Korea weren’t threat enough, Iran, Russia, and China also have assimilated EMP attacks into their military plans, posing a significant danger to the United States.
“The very existence of the nation is at stake,” Gaffney added. “We are facing explicit threats to use EMP against us from the North Koreans — and there is a lot of capability to execute such an attack in the hands of other enemies.”
Below is a video explaining EMPs from the archives of Dennis Michael Lynch:
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