Resilience Required! – The Struggle to Educate America about EMP and Secure the U.S. Electric Grid

Posted: May 17, 2016 at 3:02 pm, Last Updated: May 27, 2016 at 12:10 pm

Ronald Jacobus III and Tommy Waller


Imagine that all of a sudden your life drastically changes. The cell phone in your hand, which functioned just moments ago, will no longer send texts, make calls, or connect to the Internet. Your vehicle, with the key still in the ignition and your foot on the gas, has just rolled to a complete stop. The lights and appliances inside your household have—without warning—mysteriously ceased to function. Your water faucets have ceased to work and access to clean water is now limited to bottled water, provided you have any on hand.

As hours pass into days and days become months, it has become widely apparent the nation’s electronically dependent critical infrastructure has suffered a catastrophic failure. How would you adapt to a post-electric age? For how long could you survive in a world without electricity? How would you react if you discovered it all could have been prevented? These issues would have to be addressed in the aftermath of an electromagnetic pulse induced nationwide blackout, but they should be addressed beforehand.

What is EMP and Why is it Important?

In short, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is an instantaneous burst of electromagnetic energy capable of disrupting or destroying solid-state electronic systems and networks. Caused by the rapid acceleration of highly charged particles, an EMP’s burst or “pulse” is not biologically harmful to people. However, whether the result of an adversarial attack or naturally occurring space weather, an EMP’s ability to irreparably harm electronics represents a clear and present danger to the physical, economic, and societal fabric of the United States.

Science Fiction or Scientific Fact?

Reminiscent of a Hollywood-themed plot, the significance of EMP can be challenging to conceptualize. Unfortunately, the EMP threat is not rooted in science fiction, but rather fact. In 2000, Congress mandated the Commission to Assess the Threat from High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (The EMP Commission) to investigate the threat of EMP to U.S. critical infrastructure and military assets. On July 22, 2004, after several years of study, the EMP Commission presented their multi-volume report before the House Armed Services Committee.

While much of the information presented remains classified, the report’s two unclassified volumes sufficiently addressed the severe consequences of EMP.[1] In summary, the report identified the U.S. electric power grid as dangerously vulnerable to the consequences of EMP. Furthermore, the commission concluded EMP as “one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society at risk and might result in the defeat of our military forces.”[2]

A Matter of National Security 

In 2013, Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-21): Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience identified the Energy Sector, which contains the U.S. electric power grid, as “uniquely critical”[3] to American society. An EMP event that collapses the grid and triggers a long-term national blackout would plunge society into a sudden and unexpected environment of collective dissolution, disorganization, and chaos capable of immediately threatening the social order in the United States. Furthermore, experts stress that within a year’s time an estimated nine-tenths of the American public would perish.[4] Although it is assumed that local, state, and federal levels of Government would make every effort to preserve social control, the coast-to-coast geographic nature of an EMP-induced national blackout would amplify the disaster to a degree that would overwhelm traditional procedures and obfuscate the recovery process.

Manmade and Natural EMP

The EMP threat spectrum can be dichotomously split between manmade and natural EMP. Manmade EMP can be further divided into nuclear and non-nuclear delivery. The nuclear delivery option results from the detonation of a nuclear weapon at high altitude, while the non-nuclear option consists of various radio-frequency (RF) weapons (further analysis on RF weapons provided in the cited U.S. Navy report).[5] In contrast to manmade EMP’s nuclear and non-nuclear threat, natural EMP, recently referred to in official documentation as “space weather,”[6] results from solar activity. While natural EMP is a statistical inevitability, it has remained difficult to accurately forecast.

Nuclear EMP Weapons

The detonation of a nuclear weapon high above the earth’s surface is the premier electromagnetic weapon and is officially classified as a Nuclear High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) attack. The geographic significance of a HEMP attack is dependent on the attitude of detonation. This means even a very low yield nuclear weapon (1-2 megatons) detonated at approximately 250 miles would produce a blast radius capable of covering the entire continental United States.[7]

Both Russia and China possess the capability to launch an asymmetric HEMP attack against the United States. Additionally, HEMP technology leaked out of Russia and into the hands of North Korea.[8] The technology was further proliferated to the Islamic Republic of Iran. EMP caucus Chairman Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) cited an Iranian military textbook acquired by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) titled Passive Defense on the Congressional House Floor. This textbook referenced the deployment of a nuclear EMP as a first strike weapon more than 20 times, stressed the importance of electricity to American society, and included, “a formula for calculating the value of electric power plants and for prioritizing the targeting of electric grid components and other infrastructures.”[9] This revelation both proves the credibility of the EMP threat and highlights its relevance as a clear and present danger that must be defended against.

Natural EMP

Space weather—a euphemism that refers to the geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) caused by a solar-based Coronal Mass Ejection (CME)—also produces an EMP effect.[10] In 2008, a NASA-funded report concluded that a single geomagnetic solar storm event is capable of inducing a national, and potentially planetary, electricity blackout. The study furthered that solar storms of this energy potential occurred, on average, once every 100 years and concluded that the inevitability increased by 12 percent per decade.[11] On July 22, 2012 a CME, commonly described in the literature as a solar flare, narrowly missed the earth. Experts believe, had it struck the earth, a worldwide electricity blackout, and with it catastrophic planetary consequences, would have been induced.[12]

The National Struggle to Secure the U.S. Electric Power Grid

Federal and State Legislative efforts

Prior to 2013, the United States Congress had never introduced any EMP relevant legislation. This was until the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage (SHIELD) Act was introduced in the House on June 18, 2013. Unlike any House Resolution before it, the SHIELD Act focused to protect the U.S. electric power grid against natural and manmade EMP threats. On March 26, 2014, another bill that addressed EMP was simultaneously introduced into both the House and Senate. The Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense (GRID) Act provided the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) the necessary authority to enact mandatory measures that address the vulnerabilities of the electric power grid to include EMP. Unfortunately, neither of these unprecedentedly bi-partisan efforts have become law.

While legislative efforts at the federal level have offered little promise, individual states have begun to push their own resolutions and legislative initiatives. Maine became the first state to pass EMP related legislation. Introduced by Representative Andrea Boland in 2013, the law required Maine’s public utility commission to examine the threats from solar storms and electromagnetic pulse to the electric power grid.[13] In all, Maine, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Virginia and Oklahoma have taken steps to legislatively address the EMP threat to electric infrastructure within their state.[14] Notably, in 2014, Wisconsin became the first state to implement actual EMP protection hardware that would protect a portion of the state’s grid infrastructure.[15]

Just last month, Texas State Senator Bob Hall convened a two day grid security summit to address the Texas electric grid’s vulnerability to the EMP threat. The summit identified readily available shielding technologies designed to protect electric grid components from the severity of an EMP event. In addition to the more technical presentations, a panel of bipartisan state legislators from Florida and Missouri addressed their current EMP protection and electric grid security legislative efforts.[16] Such state initiatives indicate that state representatives have grown impatient with the federal government’s inability to secure the U.S. electric grid from EMP.

Push-back from Industry

The electric utility industry enjoys, by far, the largest degree of self-regulation (in fact nearly total self-regulation) of all industries and business groups nationwide. The North American Reliability Corporation (NERC), a utility-controlled entity, proposes standards and regulations governing themselves, which must then be approved by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Under the current regulatory model, any recommendation—mandated or otherwise—by FERC must first be supported by two-thirds of the industry-based NERC before implementation. This arrangement has allowed the electric utilities, who through transaction tariffs filed at the State level have been absolved from any liability of negligence, to become a key lobbying force against any grid protection efforts that consequently threaten their existing autonomy.

Concluding Remarks: Recommendations for Corrective Action

An EMP’s potential to irreparably harm the physical, economic, and societal fabric of the United States makes this threat far too important for the government and the private electric industry to ignore. While the consequences of an EMP are catastrophic, they can be prevented and these protections are comparatively far more affordable than the cost of recovery. While legislative action has begun to address EMP, there remains an enormous amount of work to secure the nation from this threat. The following recommendations aim to further advance existing efforts to achieve resiliency against EMP:

  • Recommendation 1: While the Administration’s recent National Space Weather Strategy Action Plan acknowledged the significance of natural EMP, the report neglected to acknowledges the nuclear EMP threat. This course of action still leaves the nation’s electric grid vulnerable to the nuclear EMP threat. Conversely, a plan that protects against nuclear EMP would subsequently protect against natural EMP.
  • Recommendation 2: The current regulatory arrangement between FERC and NERC has proved ineffective and should be replaced. The U.S. government must establish a single legal authority with the power to address safety and national security concerns, establish safety/security regulations, and enforce these regulations on the privately-owned electric grid.
  • Recommendation 3: Until the electric power grid has been protected from the EMP threat, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency must jointly developed a strategic Grid Down Disaster Recovery (G.D.D.R) plan for addition into the various local, state, and federal emergency management portfolios.

Ronald P Jacobus III received a B.S. in Criminal Justice and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin – Platteville in 2013. While a student at the university he completed an internship with the 77th area’s Major Assault Crimes Detective Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. In early 2014, Ron relocated from Minnesota to Washington D.C. to begin an 8 month internship with the Center for Security Policy. While knowledgeable in a range of criminal justice and national security issues, Ron’s primary policy focus is on high-impact threats to U.S. Critical Infrastructure. He currently resides in Austin, Texas where he works as a Policy Specialist for Texas State Senator Bob Hall.

Tommy Waller is the Director for State Legislative Outreach for The Center for Security Policy, a not-for-profit, non-partisan educational corporation that has been nationally and internationally recognized as a premier resource for timely, informed and penetrating analyses of foreign and defense policy matters.


[1] EMP Commission, Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack: Volume 1: Executive Report, (Washington D.C.: EMP Commission, 2004), available at

[2] Ibid.

[3] The White House, Presidential Policy Directive — Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience, (Washington D.C.: Office of the White House Press Secretary, Feb. 12, 2014), available at

[4] Electromagnetic Pulse: Threat to Critical Infrastructure: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies of the Committee on Homeland Security, House of Representatives, 113th Cong. 13 (2014) (prepared statement of Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, Congressional EMP Commission), available at; Threat Posed By Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack: Hearing Before the Committee on Armed Services. House of Representatives, 110th Cong. 9 (2008)(testimony of Dr. William Graham, Chair, Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack), available at; Terrorism and the EMP Threat to Homeland Security: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate,109th Cong. 17 (2005)(Statement of Lowell Wood, Commissioner, Congressional EMP Commission), available at

[5] “The Threat of Radio Frequency Weapons to Critical Infrastructure Facilities,” United States Navy Technical Support Working Group (TSWG) and Directed Energy Technology Office (DETO), Aug. 2005,

[6] See National Science and Technology Council, “National Space Weather Action Plan,” (Washington D.C.: Executive Office of the President of the United States, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Oct. 2015), available at

[7] Colin Miller, “Electromagnetic Pulse Threats in 2010,” (Maxwell AFB, AL: Center for Strategy and Technology, Air War College, 2005), available at; EMP Commission, Executive Report (2004).

[8] Electric Infrastructure Security Council, The Catastrophic Effect of an EMP Attack or Solar Storm: Our Alarming and Needless Vulnerability to Subcontinent-scale Disaster, (Los Angeles: EIS Council, 2012), available at

[9] 160 Cong. Rec. H8195 (Dec. 1, 2014) (Statement of Rep. Trent Franks), available at

[10] National Academy of Sciences, Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts, (Washington D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2008), available at

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.; Carolus Schrjiver, Robert Dobbins, William Murtagh, and Stephen Petrinec, “The Hidden Damage from Geomagnetic Storms,” Space Weather Journal (Preprint), 2014,

[13] “State Legislation: Maine,” EMPACT America, accessed Nov. 12, 2015,

[14] “State Legislation,” EMPACT America, accessed Nov. 12, 2015,

[15] Jenni Bergal, “States Work to Protect Electric Grid,” Stateline, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Feb. 27, 2015,

[16] Bob Hall, “Electric Grid Security is a Serious – but Fixable – Issue,” Texas Tribune, TribTalk, May 17, 2016,

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