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Fade to Black: Assessing the Ongoing EMP Threat

By Karl J. Paloucek

The threat of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event remains one of the most insidious facing the United States today. The idea that a foreign power — or even a spectacular incident of space weather — could knock out the electrical grid and destabilize our country for an indefinite number of years should be enough to shake us into reprioritizing our national agenda. The fact is, such a potentially cataclysmic event is entirely possible at any time, and as a nation, we are relatively unprepared to prevent it or its consequences. The good news is that over the last year, we’ve finally been making strides toward protecting this most-critical element of our infrastructure. Chuck Manto, InfraGard’s EMP SIG chair, discussed with us the situation and the progress that has been made so far.

Legislative efforts to take action against the vulnerabilities of the power grid have advanced in the past 10 years, including the Grid Act and the Shield Act. But more immediately, the final form of the new National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan was released to the public in October of last year, an act of great significance. “That’s a White House directive from the office of Science and Technology Policy to a whole series of federal agencies, and a call to the whole of community to do something very unusual that’s not really been done in the last 44 years,” Manto says, “which was to plan on a nationwide collapse of infrastructure that could last over a year.”Cover Story

This is a vastly different action plan in concept to those previously conceived and enacted at the federal level, Manto explains. “In the past, we focused primarily on smaller, regional events, like Hurricane Katrina or Sandy, where the rest of the country comes to your aid,” he says. “But in this case, everybody’s got a problem at roughly the same time, and you’re on your own. So the old guide of saying, ‘Have three days of food and water, because we’ll rescue you by day four’ will no longer hold true in those circumstances. It may be day 40 or 400 before people come to you. So therefore it behooves every institution, every neighborhood, every family to be much more resilient and make 20 or 30 percent, or whatever that number is, to 50 percent of whatever they need locally, so if centralized systems collapse, they can still survive.”