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Homeland Security report warns of an EMP attack on the U.S. grid

image credit: Credit: NASA
DW Keefer's picture
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DW Keefer is a Denver-based energy journalist who writes extensively for national and international publications on all forms of electric power generation, utility regulation, business models...

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  • Jun 30, 2020

The Department of Homeland Security in June issued a report on China’s ability to conduct an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the United States. The report concludes that China now has super-EMP weapons, is able to protect itself against an EMP attack and has developed protocols to conduct a first-strike attack.

The report says that China also has built a network of satellites, missiles and "super-EMP" weapons capable of disrupting the electric power grid, pipelines, critical banking infrastructure and communications.

EMPs include natural events like solar geomagnetic disturbances, or man-made disruptions like a thermonuclear detonation or a cyberattack.

One of the first human-caused EMP events occurred in 1962 when the 1.4 megaton Starfish Prime thermonuclear weapon detonated 400 km above the Pacific Ocean. The blast resulted in an EMP that caused unexpected electrical damage nearly 900 miles away in Hawaii.

In 1989, a geomagnetic storm triggered an event on the Hydro-Québec power system that left six million customers without power.  The storm was the result of the sun ejecting a  plume of superheated plasma that interacted with the Earth's magnetic field.

In May, Dr. Massoud Amin, IEEE and ASME Fellow and professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota, wrote in the IEEE Smart Grid newsletter that 30 years ago the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment warned that terrorists could “destroy critical [power system] components, incapacitating large segments of a transmission network for months."

Amin said that in the intervening years, the situation has become even more complex. Biological warfare, pandemics, electromagnetic and geomagnetic pulse incident, increasing stress due to climate change, and increasing complexity and connectivity of cyber, communications, and control layers add “new families of security threats and dynamic risks.”

Amin wrote that as a practical matter, electrical systems must be structured to withstand temporary loss of physical components, just as they must operate through spontaneous local outages. Achieving that resiliency, he said, “depends on defending against attacks and systemic risks/threats, be they natural/environmental, pandemics, terroristic, military, or criminal.”

The Homeland Security report said that China’s classification of a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) attack in military doctrine as “electronic warfare” or “information warfare” indicates that HEMP "is not even considered a form of nuclear attack, but would be equivalent to non-nuclear weapons and cyber warfare."


Want to get the "living color" picture of what a nation-wide EMP attack would be like to live through, get the book, "One Second After", and the two sequels.  Very thought-provoking wrt this subject...

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 6, 2020

Hadn't heard of this so I looked it up, sounds interesting. Given that it's a novel, can you comment on how true to scientific understanding the story follows when it comes to EMP? Or does it need to be read a bit more like sci-fi while considering the broader points of it?

DW Keefer's picture
Thank DW for the Post!
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