WASHINGTON – There’s been a lot of talk about the potentially devastating impact of an electrical grid shutdown from the effects of an electro-magnetic pulse from the sun or from terrorism, but little action, says a prominent members of Congress.
But it’s worse than a threat on the horizon, says Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Maryland. It’s an inevitability.
Bartlett told NPR that EMP is “an event we will not avoid” – and remediation after the fact will cost between $1 trillion and $2 trillion. Protection of the grid in advance of the disaster will cost $100 million, he said.
The threat of an EMP attack by a terrorist group or foreign enemy has been a major concern for years. But Bartlett said nature, too, represents a potential time bomb.
“The more sophisticated we become, the more vulnerable we are,” said Bartlett. “There’s a huge concern about cyber-attacks on the grid. [Well] a really robust [nuclear] EMP lay-down means microelectronics across the country would be shut down [and] you have no power…there’s one event that we will not avoid, and that is a solar electromagnetic interference, solar storm. If we have a big one like the one that occurred back in 1859, that would shut down the whole grid for quite a long while. … It would cost about $100 million to protect much of the grid, but if the grid went down, it would cost us between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in damages, and the loss of life could be horrendous if in fact you were without electricity for months at a time. There’s a bill in the House, and … it’s got to go through the Energy and Commerce Committee.”
William R. Graham, chairman of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack and the former national science adviser to President Reagan, testified before the Congress and issued an alarming report on “one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences.”
He identified vulnerabilities in the nation’s critical infrastructures “which are essential to both our civilian and military capabilities.”
Not taking the steps necessary to reduce the threat in the next three to five years “can both invite and reward attack,” Graham told the members of Congress.
EMP is a pulse of energy that can be produced from non-nuclear sources, such as electromagnetic bombs, or E-bombs. Some experts claim an electromagnetic pulse shock wave can be produced by a device small enough to fit in a briefcase. But the most threatening and terrifying type of EMP attack could come following a blast from a nuclear weapon 25 to 250 miles above the Earth’s surface. Like a swift stroke of lightening, EMP could immediately disrupt and damage all electronic systems and America’s electrical infrastructure. A detonation over the middle of the continental U.S. “has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructures that support the fabric of U.S. society and the ability of the United States and Western nations to project influence and military power,” said Graham.
“Several potential adversaries have the capability to attack the United States with a high-altitude nuclear weapon-generated electromagnetic pulse, and others appear to be pursuing efforts to obtain that capability,” said Graham. “A determined adversary can achieve an EMP attack capability without having a high level of sophistication. For example, an adversary would not have to have long-range ballistic missiles to conduct an EMP attack against the United States. Such an attack could be launched from a freighter off the U.S. coast using a short- or medium-range missile to loft a nuclear warhead to high altitude. Terrorists sponsored by a rogue state could attempt to execute such an attack without revealing the identity of the perpetrators. Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of international terrorism, has practiced launching a mobile ballistic missile from a vessel in the Caspian Sea. Iran has also tested high-altitude explosions of the Shahab-III, a test mode consistent with EMP attack, and described the tests as successful. Iranian military writings explicitly discuss a nuclear EMP attack that would gravely harm the United States. While the commission does not know the intention of Iran in conducting these activities, we are disturbed by the capability that emerges when we connect the dots.”
An EMP assault could prove devastating because of the unprecedented cascading failures of major infrastructures that could result. Because of America’s heavy reliance on electricity and electronics, the impact would be far worse than on a country less advanced technologically. Graham and the commission see the potential for failure in the financial system, the system of distribution for food and water, medical care and trade and production.
“The recovery of any one of the key national infrastructures is dependent upon the recovery of others,” he said. “The longer the outage, the more problematic and uncertain the recovery will be. It is possible for the functional outages to become mutually reinforcing until at some point the degradation of infrastructure could have irreversible effects on the country’s ability to support its population.”
In an earlier report, the commission even went so far as to suggest, in its opening sentence, that an EMP attack “might result in the defeat of our military forces.”