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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

UPI March 9, 2005

Protection not in place for electric WMD

By Dee Ann Divis

A nuclear bomb detonated high above the United States could unleash an electromagnetic pulse that would shut down the nation's power grid and, along with it, communications, water supplies and even food transportation.

If the effect is long-lasting enough, it also could trigger a social collapse that could conceivably cause the deaths of millions of people and, temporarily, push the nation back 100 years, a congressional commission told the Senate.

Despite the threat, which could come from terrorists as well as enemy states, the Department of Homeland Security has not addressed the issue fully or weighed the commission's recommendations, said Lowell Wood and Peter Pry, respectively, a member and senior staffer on the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack. They testified Tuesday before the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security.

"(There is) a contrast in our relationship with the Department of Defense, where the commission findings have been briefed all the way up to the (Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul) Wolfowitz level," Pry said. "We have not had a briefing like that with the Department of Homeland Security."

Of course, the DHS did not exist when the commission was created and there was no legislative direction for such coordination, as there was for the Defense Department, the two said. By all accounts, DHS also has not received the commission's full set of recommendations because it is tied up in classification reviews.

An electromagnetic pulse or EMP occurs when a nuclear explosion emits gamma rays that interact with the surrounding air, shooting off electrons. The electrons scatter wildly, creating a rolling electrical field that can send voltage spikes and surges of current racing through power lines, communications cables and radio towers. In the best case scenarios examined by the commission, the EMP was little more than an annoyance, disrupting communications, but easily addressed. Still, EMP power spikes, if strong enough, can destroy a wide range of electrical equipment.

In the worst-case scenario -- with a large nuclear bomb detonated at an altitude of 250 miles above, say, Omaha, Neb. -- an EMP would race across the entire United States at the speed of light, frying in seconds all manner of electrical equipment, including the huge transformers that anchor the nation's electrical power grid.

"This is the (Sept. 11) threat of the future," Pry told United Press International in an interview.

As the electrical grid collapses, it would take with it the entire infrastructure that depends on it.

"In a matter of hours after an EMP, American cities would be in flames and they would burn down," Wood said, because there were would be no way to pump the water needed to stop the fires. Without electricity to run gas pumps, trucks and buses needed to move the injured and supply affected areas would stop rolling. Refrigeration would fail, ruining much of the food stocks already in place. If any radio stations were still broadcasting, few people would have working radios to find out where to go for help.

"Four million Americans under the age of 1 would die of starvation because there wasn't the formula and other specialty items citizens are used to finding in the stores when they need them. Children are very fragile and we would lose 4 million in the first few weeks," Wood said.

Wood and Pry said knowledge of how to use an EMP as a weapon has been widespread for decades and China, Russia, Iran and North Korea all have discussed using EMP against the United States. They also said the commission was told by Russian military officers that Korea has the technology to develop a Super EMP and probably could do so in a few years. Terrorists, especially if helped by Iran, also could use an EMP weapon.

Long-time military analyst John Pike disagreed that terrorists were likely to use an EMP.

"It is just very difficult to imagine how terrorists are going to be able to lay hands on a nuclear-tipped missile, and launch it and reprogram it in such a way that it would be a high-altitude burst like that," said Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "I would be concerned about a state doing that. I would certainly be concerned about North Korea pulling a stunt like that. That would have to be a real concern -- that North Korea would do it."

The question is what to do about it, said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the subcommittee chairman.

Without proper planning, it could take months or even years to restore functions, Wood noted. The large transformers that are the linchpins of the electrical grid, for example, have to be ordered from Europe. It could take two years to build and install the huge pieces of equipment, Pry said.

The Department of Energy, which has the mandate to protect the nation's entire energy infrastructure, has been looking at ways to protect the power grid, said Department of Energy spokesman Tom Welch.

"What we've been doing is coming up with a plan by working with the Department of Homeland Security and industry over the last year," Welch said.

That plan is still under development, but it does include an EMP contingency. Welch noted the department's Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., also supported the commission in its work.

DHS is working to counter the EMP threat by securing telecommunications, testified Peter Fonash, acting deputy manager of the department's national communications.

"The main switching offices are basically immune ... they would be disrupted, but not destroyed," Fonash told UPI in a subsequent interview.

Even if there was no electricity or transportation for refueling, the phone grid would be functional for several days.

"In general there is about 12 to 18 hours of battery backup, and in addition, there are about three days of diesel-generation backup," said Fonash, who added non-wireless phones would be operational.

"If you have a regular phone, not a wireless phone, it has power from that central office and your receiver will work," he said. "If you have a traditional touch-tone phone ... you could call your parents."

There are a number of things that can be done, said Wood and Pry, who suggested indirectly that the commission continue to operate to help with preparations. Among measures they suggested were stockpiling large electrical transformers so they could be moved into place in an emergency. Creating an inventory of 100 to 150 transformers would take several years if they were ordered in bulk, Pry said.

The pair also suggested establishing a domestic supplier of the transformers.

Diesel-electric locomotives, with ample stockpiles of fuel, also could be put in place to move supplies, Pry said. It would not take long to put precautions in place, Wood and Pry added.

"The commission estimates ... if we follow the commission blueprint, that we could probably put ourselves into a situation where we could neutralize this particular threat, at least to the extent that it ... wouldn't be a catastrophic, society-destroying threat and we would be able to recover," Pry said.

The cost would be modest, he said, maybe about $2 billion. To do this, however, the focus needs to be protecting the electrical power grid.

"It is the keystone infrastructure," Pry said. "If you get it up, you can eventually recover all the other infrastructures. If you can't get it, you never get the other infrastructures back. Everything depends on electricity."

Copyright 2005, U.P.I.