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Federal Efforts to Address EMP Threat Need Improvement

Federal Efforts to Address EMP Threat Need Improvement Homeland Security TodayAn electromagnetic pulse (EMP)—a burst of either natural or nuclear-generated energy that can destroy electronic systems and wipe out generators—could severely cripple US critical infrastructure, which serves as the backbone of the nation’s economy, security, and health.

If such an attack were to occur, whether naturally occurring or manmade, it could result in the deaths of nine out of ten Americans through starvation, disease and the collapse of modern society, according to Dr. Vincent Peter Pry, a member of the congressional EMP Commission and executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security.

In 2008, the EMP Commission warned that “a high altitude nuclear explosion is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences.”

Recognizing this possibility, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review federal efforts to address electromagnetic risks to the electric grid at the request of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC), which convened a hearing in July 2015 to assess the nuclear EMP threat from Iran and North Korea.

GAO determined that federal agencies have taken steps to address the threat of an EMP attack to the nation’s electric grid, in accordance with the recommendations laid out in 2008 by the EMP Commission.

For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which plays a lead role in supporting the resilience of US critical infrastructure, has developed EMP protection guidelines to assist federal agencies and industry in identifying options for safeguarding critical communication equipment and control systems.

However, much work remains. Specifically, DHS needs to establish clear roles and responsibilities within the Department in the event that an EMP attack were to occur. GAO explained, “Once clear roles and responsibilities are established and communicated, DHS and other federal agencies will be better positioned to leverage their respective expertise to inform future actions.”

In addition, DHS and the Department of Energy (DOE) have not collaborated with industry to establish a coordinated approach to identifying and implementing key risk management activities to address EMP risks.

“Enhanced coordination to determine key research priorities could help address some identified research gaps and may help alleviate concerns voiced by industry regarding the costs and potential adverse consequences on grid reliability that may be caused by implementation of such equipment,” GAO explained.

Neither DHS nor DOE have reported taking any actions to identify critical electrical infrastructure assets, as called for in the National Infrastructure Protection Plan. Although the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) conducted a related effort in 2013, it did not solicit partnership from other federal agencies, including DHS and DOE.

“Given the significant critical infrastructure responsibilities and expertise of these agencies, this lack of participation may have diminished the potential robustness of the study,” said GAO.

GAO recommended that DHS identify internal roles to address electromagnetic risks, and collect additional risk inputs to further inform assessment efforts. In addition, DHS and DOE need to improve collaboration to ensure critical electrical infrastructure assets are identified, and engage with industry stakeholders to identify and prioritize risk-management activities.

DHS and DOE concurred with GAO’s recommendations and identified planned actions to address them.

The possibility of an EMP attack is not as far-fetched as it may seem. In 1859, a geomagnetic storm known as the “Carrington Event” resulted in fires in telegraph stations and burnt out the just-laid transatlantic cable. Since electronic systems were not a critical component of society at the time, the event was not disastrous. If the same event were to occur today, it would devastate essential infrastructure.

Scientists predict that we are long overdue for another geomagnetic storm, and the next one — the first in the modern era — could be catastrophic.

Equally alarming is the threat of a nuclear EMP. A single nuclear weapon detonated at high-altitude will generate an EMP capable of causing catastrophic damage across the entire contiguous United States. Disturbingly, the military doctrines of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran consider EMP to be a form of cyber warfare for use against their adversaries.

Rouge states and terrorists are also capable to deploying a nuclear warhead to exact a catastrophic EMP attack.

The threat focused on primarilyby the EMP Commission is the high-altitude EMP (HEMP)—the detonation of a nuclear device above the atmosphere, from about 40 to 400 kilometers (approximately 25 to 250 miles) above the earth’s surface. Although a HEMP attack is harmless to people, it can destroy the electrical infrastructure essential to the day-to-day functioning of society.

During the July 2015 Senate HSGAC hearing, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Chairman of the Committee, said, “We already know we have North Korea with a nuclear weapons capability and ballistic missile technology. We know Iran has those exact same ambitions . . . so this is a threat that is real and that we need to acknowledge.”

Whether man-made or naturally occurring, an EMP attack is not a “doomsday scenario,” it is a clear and present danger to the US homeland. Addressing these events requires immediate action, as well as effective collaboration among multiple government agencies.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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