Last month, federal agencies and utility executives held GridEx IV, a biennial event where officials responsible for hundreds of local utilities game out scenarios in which North America’s power grid could fail. Potential calamities both physical and cyber are reviewed, with participant responses analyzed to better prepare for any future attack.
This year, the event took on an added urgency given growing concern with a weapon straight out of the Cold War: an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, emanating from a nuclear blast—specifically, one delivered by a North Korean missile or satellite detonated miles above the Earth. Though GridEx IV didn’t pose this exact scenario, industry experts concede there’s no clear plan to deal with it.
Expert testimony before Congress on Thursday warned that an electromagnetic pulse attack on our power grid and electronic infrastructure could leave most Americans dead and the U.S. in another century.
That dire warning came from Peter Vincent Pry, a member of the Congressional EMP Commission and executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security.
He testified in front of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies that an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event could wipe out 90% of America’s population.
Most people’s eyes might glaze over upon mention of the committee name, the title of the hearing — “Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP): Threat to Critical Infrastructure” — and the general subject of EMP. But it is a real threat and not the stuff of science fiction.
Some attention has been paid to the potential cataclysmic effects of a natural phenomenon such as a massive solar storm, an event that has occurred in America’s horse-and-buggy era when it did not matter.
Today an electromagnetic pulse event would be devastating. It wouldn’t need a solar storm, just a solitary nuke detonated in the atmosphere above the American heartland. We would envy the horse-and-buggy era.
“Natural EMP from a geomagnetic superstorm, like the 1859 Carrington Event or 1921 Railroad Storm, and nuclear EMP attack from terrorists or rogue states, as practiced by North Korea during the nuclear crisis of 2013, are both existential threats that could kill 9-of-10 Americans through starvation, disease and societal collapse,” the Washington Free Beacon quoted Pry as saying.
As we reported early last year, Pry, a former CIA nuclear weapons analyst, believes that North Korea’s recent seemingly low-yield nuclear tests and launch of a low-orbit satellite may in fact be preparations for a future electromagnetic pulse attack.
A copy of a report prepared by the Department of Homeland Security for the Defense Department, obtained by Pry from sources within DHS, finds North Korea could use its Unha-3 space launch vehicle to deliver a nuclear warhead as a satellite over the South Pole to attack America from the south.
As the Heritage Foundation has reported, an EMP attack with a warhead detonated 25 to 300 miles above the U.S. mainland “would fundamentally change the world:”
“Airplanes would fall from the sky; most cars would be inoperable; electrical devices would fail. Water, sewer and electrical networks would fail simultaneously. Systems of banking, energy, transportation, food production and delivery, water, emergency services and even cyberspace would collapse.”
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Parts of the United States would be starved of electricity, water, food, internet service and transportation for a year or longer by the smallest electromagnetic pulse attack on the electric grid, according to a newly declassified report from a federal commission.
The so-called EMP Commission report said that the threat is real, jeopardizes “modern civilization,” and would set back living conditions to those last seen in the 1800s.
And as a result of the chaos, millions would likely die, according to the report titled “Assessing the Threat from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP),” from the recently re-established Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack.
“A long-term outage owing to EMP could disable most critical supply chains, leaving the U.S. population living in conditions similar to centuries past, prior to the advent of electric power,” said the July 2018 report provided Secrets.
“In the 1800s, the U.S. population was less than 60 million, and those people had many skills and assets necessary for survival without today’s infrastructure. An extended blackout today could result in the death of a large fraction of the American people through the effects of societal collapse, disease, and starvation. While national planning and preparation for such events could help mitigate the damage, few such actions are currently underway or even being contemplated,” added the executive summary.
Three reports on the issue have been declassified by the Pentagon and seven more are awaiting clearance.
The warnings in the report somewhat echo those made a similar commission a decade ago. But this time the feared attacks aren’t just from a solar event but a potential atmospheric nuclear blast or cyber hit launched by North Korea, China or Russia.
What’s more, the report warns that despite President Trump’s focus on the issue and demand for action, federal agencies are fighting over the issue and the Defense Department, which is factoring in EMP protection into its plans, isn’t sharing critical information to help civilian agencies and private firms make similar protections.
Also declassified was a report from Peter Vincent Pry, who served on a prior EMP Commission and is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, spelling out the human toll of an EMP attack on the electric grid. He also advises the current commission.
In “Life Without Electricity,” he said the results would be:
Social Order: Looting requires dusk to dawn curfew. People become refugees as they flee powerless homes. Work force becomes differently employed at scavenging for basics, including water, food, and shelter.
Communications: No TV, radio, or phone service.
Transportation: Gas pumps inoperable. Failure of signal lights and street lights impedes traffic, stops traffic after dark. No mass transit metro service. Airlines stopped.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN AFTER AN EMP?
Water and Food: No running water. Stoves and refrigerators inoperable. People melt snow, boil water, and cook over open fires. Local food supplies exhausted. Most stores close due to blackout.
Energy: Oil and natural gas flows stop.
Emergency Medical: Hospitals operate in dark. Patients on dialysis and other life support threatened. Medications administered and babies born by flashlight.
Death and Injury: Casualties from exposure, carbon dioxide poisoning and house fires increase.
“President Trump’s withdrawal from the bogus Iran nuclear deal, and his determination to denuclearize North Korea, are all the more important because even a single nuclear weapon possessed by these rogue states would pose an existential threat to North America by EMP attack,” Pry told Secrets.
The report warned that the type of conditions spelled out by Pry could last a long time due to the difficulties fixing the electric grid, which many have testified would be fairly cheap to harden against an attack.