An EMP Attack Could Be Catastrophic

In a world powered by technology, it is difficult to imagine life without it, but it might be necessary to try.

President Trump recently issued an Executive Order to protect the nation from an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. An EMP is an intense pulse of electromagnetic energy created by the high-altitude explosion of a nuclear bomb. Unlike detonating a nuclear bomb on the ground or immediately above a city, a high-altitude detonation produces no blast effects or radiation that would affect humans. The blast and the radiation released from it into space would cause permanent damage to satellites and create a series of pulses harmful to electronics. The Congressional EMP Commission found that a single nuclear explosion at a high altitude above the U.S. would severely damage electrical and informational systems.

Back-up power systems at hospitals would likely malfunction or only last as long as their fuel supply. Many vehicles would fail to operate properly, and drivers would be unable to refuel. ATMs would not allow access to money, and the availability of clean water would quickly become a concern. Raw sewage would begin to back up in homes and facilities, and with agricultural production and transportation at a standstill, the food supply would soon diminish. Back-up generators and cooling systems for nuclear power plants could fail or run out of fuel, which would put millions of Americans at risk of radiation exposure. “A successful nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States could cause the death of approximately 90 percent of the American population,” according to a Senate Homeland Security Committee statement.

Attempts by the federal government to establish policies to prepare for such an attack have been made difficult due to the combination of public and private actors involved. Though technology to secure the grid is available, implementation is a challenge.  A collective national plan to secure the grid requires the cooperation of electric companies, system operators, technology companies, and Congress. Since this issue limits how the U.S. can effectively prevent catastrophic effects of EMP attacks, the nation remains vulnerable to them.

President Trump’s recent Executive Order mandates federal agencies to coordinate with each other to develop a whole-of-government approach to assessing and managing the risks of EMP. It outlines the individual roles and responsibilities of major federal departments to successfully mitigate the risks. The Executive Order states that within one year, President Trump will receive a report from heads of appropriate agencies detailing the available technology options that could be used to harden the electric grid and protect critical infrastructure. Within 180 days of analyzing those options, an engineering approach will be taken to implement technologies.

Trump’s Executive Order marks the first comprehensive plan involving public and private sectors to assess the EMP threat – the first step to effectively defending against it.