WASHINGTON – A Government Accountability Office official told a House panel that the Obama administration has taken a variety of steps to address the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse damaging the nation’s power grid but further action is necessary.
Appearing before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency, Chris Currie, who heads the GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice division, acknowledged that officials in the Department of Homeland Security and other federal offices have followed many of the recommendations issued by a special Electromagnetic Pulse Commission in 2008.
But DHS thus far has not clearly identified roles and responsibilities for addressing electromagnetic risks and has yet to fully identify the nation’s key electrical infrastructure assets.
While several departments within the federal government have conducted independent activities addressing electromagnetic risks to the electric grid, Currie said, “none had been tasked with lead responsibility for coordinating related activities within the department or with federal and industry stakeholders.”
“As a result, during the course of our review for our March 2016 report, we experienced ongoing challenges in identifying applicable DHS personnel and related departmental actions,” he said.
Brandon Wales, director of the Office of Cyber and Infrastructure Analysis in the Department of Homeland Security, assured the panel that DHS is “working collaboratively, both internally and with external stakeholders, in various arenas to address the recommendations issued by GAO on this topic.”
“DHS, for many years, has pursued a deeper understanding of the EMP threat, as well as its potential impacts, effective mitigation strategies and a greater level of public awareness and readiness,” Wales said. “These efforts have been undertaken in cooperation with other federal agencies and private sector owners and operators and we are committed to continuing to expand our focus on this issue, as warranted by the risk environment.”
The GAO report noted that researchers have found that electromagnetic risks caused by a man-made electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or a naturally occurring solar weather event could have a significant impact on the nation’s electric grid as well as other infrastructure sectors that depend on electricity, such as communications.
The impact of these events could lead to power outages over broad geographic areas for extended durations.
A nuclear EMP, a burst of electromagnetic radiation resulting from the detonation of a nuclear device in the atmosphere, possibly by terrorists, can disrupt or destroy electronic equipment. Non-nuclear EMP weapons can also be designed to intentionally disrupt electronics, but these generally have short range and are not a threat to multiple assets.
Meanwhile, naturally occurring solar weather events of sufficient intensity can also cause electromagnetic impacts that can adversely affect components of the commercial electric grid, as well as other infrastructure such as satellites and undersea cables.
The resulting impact of a solar weather event is commonly referred to as a geomagnetic disturbance. In 1989, a GMD had a wide-scale impact on the Hydro-Quebec power system in Canada, causing the regional electric grid to collapse within 92 seconds, leaving 6 million customers without power for up to 9 hours.
Wales acknowledged that in some forms, EMP can cause “widespread disruption and serious damage to electronic devices and networks, including those upon which many critical infrastructures rely.”
“There is uncertainty over the magnitude and duration of an electric power outage that may result from an EMP event due to ambiguity regarding the actual damage to electric power assets from an event,” he said. “Any electric power outage resulting from an EMP event would ultimately depend upon a number of unknown factors and effects to assets that are challenging to accurately model, making it difficult to provide high-specificity information to electric system planners and system operators.”
Potential damage depends on the EMP device type, the location of the blast, the height of the blast, the yield of the blast, and design and operating parameters of the electric power system subject to the blast. Secondary effects of EMP may harm people through induced fires, electric shocks, and disruptions of transportation and critical support systems, such as those at hospitals or sites like nuclear power plants and chemical facilities.
“All critical infrastructure sectors are at risk from EMP,” Wales said, including those sectors that rely heavily on communications and sensor technology, information technology and the electric grid.
“The complex interconnectivity among critical infrastructure sectors means that EMP incidents that affect a single sector are likely affect other sectors,” he noted.
The consequences of an EMP can range from permanent physical damage to temporary system disruptions and can result in fires, electric shocks to people and equipment and critical service outages.
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), the subcommittee chairman, warned that long-term power outages resulting from an attack on America’s critical infrastructure “could cripple our nation’s economy and put Americans’ health and safety in jeopardy.”
“Because the nation’s critical infrastructure is so vital to Americans’ way of life, the federal government has recognized the necessity of securing our infrastructure from an array of risks, including the threat of an electromagnetic pulse attack,” Perry said.
The most serious EMP risk, he said, would come in the form of an EMP resulting from a nuclear detonation at high altitude.
“While many believe the likelihood of such an attack is low, the damage and economic aftershocks that would follow demand that we address these risks,” Perry said. “We cannot discount that other nation-states, such as North Korea, or sophisticated terror groups might want to utilize an EMP to wreak havoc on our economy.”