On February 2, 2020, thousands of Canadians lost by a landslide—and most weren’t even in politics! Ordinary citizens found normal life interrupted for days after a landslide near North Bend, B.C. cut fiber optic cables. Phone and internet customers had service disruptions all weekend. Vancouver parking meters stopped working. Calgary security alarms started malfunctioning.1 But all of this pales in comparison to the far-reaching devastation of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. People could be without power for more than a year, resulting in massive casualties. It is essential for people and governments to prepare for this threat.
The first EMP attack was made by the United States against its own self—albeit unintentionally. In the Starfish Prime Nuclear Test of 1962, a 1.4 megaton nuclear bomb was detonated 240 miles above sea level (the same height as the current orbit of the International Space Station). Although Hawaii was 1000 miles away from the detonation, phone service was disrupted, street lights went down, and burglar alarms were set off.
The impact of the Starfish Prime Test exceeded expectations and made the EMP threat evident. Before 1962 was over, MIT scientist J.C.R. Licklider proposed a means of preparedness. His idea was that a “galactic network” of computers could talk to each other so that the government could continue even if the telephone system was lost. This was the conceptual genesis of the internet.2
After the internet became a mainstream phenomenon, the EMP threat was re-examined. It became immediately clear that the threat remained. In 1997, the Committee on National Security of the U.S. House of Representatives was told that an EMP attack delivered at 300 miles above sea level would affect nearly 6.8 million square miles. This would include nearly all of the continental U.S. and Mexico, and most major Canadian cities.3
From 2001 to 2008, the House Armed Services Committee in the United States held a commission to consider the vulnerability of the military and civilian infrastructure should an EMP attack take place. The commission’s final report said that the power grid was more vulnerable than ever.
Modern electronics, communications, protection, control, and computers have allowed the physical system to be utilized fully with ever-smaller margins for error. Therefore, a relatively modest upset to the system can cause functional collapse. As the system grows in complexity and interdependence, restoration from collapse or loss of significant portions of the system becomes exceedingly difficult.4
The final report of the commission delivered 100 recommendations to protect food, water, communications, transportation, energy, business, and finance.5 Regardless, none of these recommendations were implemented before the next EMP commission was formed in 2015.6
The Existential Threat
Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea include EMP attacks as part of their military strategies.7 A backgrounder by the Heritage Foundation backgrounder says:
An EMP’s devastating effects make it a useful asymmetrical weapon for weaker U.S. adversaries, particularly those who are not as technologically advanced and as dependent on electricity as the United States, who would thus not be similarly affected by a U.S. “response in kind.”8
An EMP event could also come from nature. In 1859, a massive solar flare known as the Clarington Event sent energy equivalent to 10 billion atomic bombs at the earth. Massive auroras lit up the skies so brightly that people could work and read in the night by the unusual light. Telegraph wires spit sparks in various places, hindering communication. A 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences estimated that a similar solar storm today would cost as much as $2 trillion due to the “extensive social and economic disruptions” as power grids, GPS, and satellites went down. This very thing almost occurred on July 23, 2012, as a coronal mass ejection from the sun crossed earth’s orbit and narrowly missed the planet.9
Whether an EMP threat comes from nature or a human enemy, monitoring systems would have no more than 45 minutes warning.10
Dr. Peter Vincent Fry chaired the most recent congressional EMP commission. Its 2017 report, “Assessing the Threat from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP)” stated:
A nationwide blackout of the electric power grid and grid-dependent critical infrastructures — communications, transportation, sanitation, food and water supply — could plausibly last a year or longer. Many of the systems designed to provide renewable, stand-alone power in case of an emergency, such as generators, uninterruptible power supplies, and renewable energy grid components, are also vulnerable to EMP attack.11
In another report by Fry, named “Life Without Electricity,” he clarifies the catastrophic potential of an EMP attack.12 TV, radio, phone service, gas pumps, traffic lights, public transit, and airline service, water taps, fridges, and stoves all stop working. People scavenge for food and water during the day, but curfews keep them home at night to prevent looting. Hospitals operate by flashlight. Patients on dialysis and life support die first, followed by casualties from carbon dioxide poisoning, house fires, and exposure.13
More serious problems would occur if the EMP attack damaged any of the 99 nuclear reactors at 61 commercial plants in 30 states. Backup generators have only enough diesel to run for a week. If they fail to get more fuel, each will suffer a meltdown similar to that which occurred at the Fukushima power plant in 2011. More than one-third of Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant and would suffer from radiation. America’s 2.3 million prisoners would probably escape as well,14 transforming America into a post-apocalyptic nightmare.
The commission estimated that it could take more than a year for the electrical grid to be restored. In the meantime, as many as nine-tenths of Americans would die due to “societal collapse, disease, and starvation.15 While national planning and preparation for such events could help mitigate the damage, few such actions are currently underway or even being contemplated.16
Canada and US Nowhere Near Ready
Journalist Anthony Furey, author of the book Pulse Attack, says the U.S. remains ill-prepared and Canada is even worse. “The U.S. military has patchwork protection while their entire civilian infrastructure is vulnerable. Canada, it seems, isn’t even that far ahead,17”Furey says. In a Toronto Sun column in 2017, Furey wrote:
While EMP crops up in a few Canadian government reports over the years, I’ve discovered from access to information requests that our bureaucrats and politicians are basically clueless about this serious threat to our way of life.
There is no mitigation strategy. There is no action plan. There isn’t even significant awareness of the issue.18
Thus far there seems to be a disconnect between the political leadership of the United States and execution of their EMP preparedness plans. President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy requires that the electrical grid and other critical infrastructures be protected from EMP attack.19 Congress also passed the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act that made EMP preparedness a legal obligation. Unfortunately, as Dr. William R Graham and Dr. Peter Vincent Fry, wrote in The Hill in 2018, “bureaucrats in the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and DOE [Department of Energy] have, to date, deliberately ignored or dismissed the guidance of the president, the Congress and the EMP Commission.”20
President Trump later issued his “Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses” on March 26, 2019 to increase preparedness in both the public and private sector.21
Graham and Fry insist that either the president or an appointee must “plough through a resistant federal bureaucracy” to implement a straightforward solution; “Protecting our electronic civilization is easy to do: a FERC regulation requiring utilities to protect the electric grid from 100 kilovolts/meter E1 EMP and 85 volts/kilometer E3 EMP would seriously address, and eventually solve, the problem.”22
The process of “hardening” the grid need not be onerously expensive. In the United States, the deployment of surge protectors, neutral current blockers, and improved physical security for critical transformer stations could take place at the cost of $2 billion. This is less than $2 per U.S. resident for five years.23It is reasonable to expect a similarly proportionate burden would address the problem in Canada.
Canadians should demand that their provincial and federal leaders address the threat of an EMP attack. They should also prepare themselves. “A Call to Action for America,” a report by the Task Force on National and Homeland Security authored in 2017, offers advice that is applicable anywhere.
Start with the assumption that help won’t be coming, and if it did, it could be many months away. Clearly, 3 to 14 days of food won’t be enough. You would also need a way to collect and purify water to drink, and some means to properly defend yourself and your loved ones. . . The better prepared you are, the better able our government can direct limited resources to those who are less prepared.24
Lee Harding is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
- http://www.empcommission.org/docs/A2473-EMP_Commission-7MB.pdf, p. 17.
- https://www.heritage.org/sites/default/files/2018-04/BG3299.pdf, p. 6.
- https://www.heritage.org/sites/default/files/2018-04/BG3299.pdf, p. 6.
- https://www.heritage.org/sites/default/files/2018-04/BG3299.pdf, p. 7.
- https://securethegrid.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/A-Call-to-Action-for-America-Revised-on-10-6-17.pdf, p. 3.
- https://securethegrid.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/A-Call-to-Action-for-America-Revised-on-10-6-17.pdf, p. 7.
- https://securethegrid.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/A-Call-to-Action-for-America-Revised-on-10-6-17.pdf, p. 8.