Managing the EMP Threat

As we grow ever more dependent on electricity not just as an energy source, but our primary means of communication and disseminating information, it’s imperative that we plan ahead to guard against significant threats to the nationwide power grid.

By Karl J.Paloucek

Above: The interior of a room entirely shielded against an EMP attack. Stainless-steel plates are fused together to form the structure, which is then essentially wrapped in a Faraday cage to protect everything inside against the electron bombardment of an EMP event.
Above: The interior of a room entirely shielded against an EMP attack. Stainless-steel plates are fused together to form the structure, which is then essentially wrapped in a Faraday cage to protect everything inside against the electron bombardment of an EMP event.

It’s as real as the Cold War threat of nuclear warheads. And not a lot younger.

As early as 1963, at least a few U.S. physicists were aware of the threat of electromagnetic pulse (EMP)† to the electrical and telecommunications grids. EMP technology has been in development since that era, and over the decades has become more affordable and accessible than ever. In November of last year, Admiral Michael Rogers warned that China and a number of other nations now have the capability to successfully launch a cyberattack that could shut down much of the electrical grid in this country. With such an escalated risk of threat actors carrying out an EMP attack, it’s vital for those in the security industry, regardless of sector, to become aware and informed about the realities of EMP technology and its potential to impact our society. To that end, we spoke with Jack Pressman, executive managing director at EMP GRID services, to learn exactly what the danger from EMPs is, and what people in both the private and public sectors can do about it.

“Specifically, what an EMP represents is a nanosecond gigahertz burst that creates a gigahertz impact of electrons that explode outward from the source of the EMP,” Pressman explains. “From a weaponization perspective, or a true risk to the grid, what we’re really addressing is what’s called an HEMP, or high-altitude electromagnetic pulse. This is specifically a nanosecond burst that’s created by a nuclear device. Depending on the size of the device and its height above ground level, it will create a massive gigahertz burst over a large area.”

How big is a “large area”? Think about the scale of a weather system. “For example, a 10-kiloton weapon 40 kilometers above the Earth’s surface — let’s just say, for example, above Kansas City — will dramatically impact the grid all the way to Milwaukee,” Pressman suggests. “A larger weapon detonated 80 kilometers above the Earth will impact an area potentially two, two-and-a-half times the size of that circle. So it’s a very dramatic weapon. It has specifically become a critical problem today because of the geopolitical change worldwide.”

EMPs can also occur naturally, through space weather, including solar flares, solar radiation storms and geomagnetic storms. While these events may not have the immediate intensity of an HEMP attack — they can have extended duration times, lasting hours, days or longer, and have the potential to cause brownouts, blackouts or even collapse, and can damage unprotected transformers.

In 1859, a massive solar storm produced immense solar flares — observed by British astronomer Richard Carrington — which sent two coronal mass ejections (CMEs) through space. In what became known as the “Carrington Event,” telegraph systems worldwide failed, magnetic recorders went off their scales, and the Aurora Borealis illuminated the night skies as far south as Panama. Smaller storms in 1989 and 2003 demonstrated lesser impact but still raise the question of how long before another Carrington-sized event takes place.

Protecting Our Utilities and Information

Between the fluid, unstable geopolitical unrest and the exponentially magnified implications of a Carrington Event in the 21st century, the thought of taking action to protect the grid and everything that’s dependent on it takes on a new urgency. But how do we protect against such an insidious and instantaneous attack?

“It’s a different type of defense,” Pressman says. “When we’re looking at protecting against an HEMP or a related-type of man-made event, because it’s a nanosecond event, you basically have to shield completely from that massive, very, very fast burst of electron activity. That really entails complete shielding of the facility and a filtering of all incoming services.”

Essentially, anything deemed absolutely critical must be sealed in a room shielded by sealed plates of stainless steel surrounded by a Faraday cage.

“Think about a bank and a bank vault,” Pressman explains. “A bank is a big institution. It could be multiple floors, tens of thousands of square feet. But there’s a specific area where there is a vault. Maybe the vault is a foot of steel, 360 degrees. That is a small area within the bank. But that vault is obviously nearly impenetrable. It’s the same as designing infrastructure for EMP. You have to look at what infrastructure absolutely must survive immediately — day one, day two, day 30 — and that you actually would put into a fully shielded vault.”

The defense against a geomagnetic storm or solar event has a different dynamic. “It’s not going to have the same impact from a gigahertz perspective,” Pressman offers. “It’s actually going to cause a distortion in harmonics of the electrical service. There are two ways to address it. One is to try to filter that out as the electrical service is coming into the user source. What we’ve done is a little bit simpler. We just treat that distortion as an aberrant component of the grid, and just shut down the entrance from the grid. So we immediately go to onsite generation.”

Examining the Cost/Benefit Ratio

Any way you look at it, building up the defense of our electrical infrastructure against threat actors and solar phenomenon is a costly prospect. The prospect of building shielded rooms to fit around major transformers, site-specific internal power generators, server rooms, data centers — not to mention the complexities involved in protecting hospitals and other locations critical to supporting the health and wellbeing of the citizenry — is staggering to consider. But Pressman maintains that it’s not only necessary, but that the costs can be relatively easily absorbed.

“It’s like the advent of airbags,” he says. “Originally, 20 years ago, there was a tremendous pushback from the consumer to pay the cost of airbags. Obviously retrofitting existing automobiles with airbags was probably not feasible. But obviously, over a period of 20 years, the design was basically fully incorporated into the design of an automobile. It’s the same thing.”

At the same time, he issues his cautions about the costs of not building up the protection for our grid. “From a grid perspective, you’re looking at protecting the power generation source,” he says. “One area that I’m very concerned about is nuclear power plants. What happens in the control centers of a nuclear power plant if there’s a massive failure? How do you power down those facilities gracefully? That’s a specific issue that the Exelons of the world have to address.”

Pressman is optimistic that the blue-chip companies will take the lead in being proactive about protecting against the threat of an EMP event. “I think when major uses of power, like, say, in Chicago, the United Airlines, or the Walgreens, or the Krafts, or the Abbots, who are buying large amounts of power reach out to ComEd and say, ‘We want you to begin installing protected transformers,’ it can be done,” he says. “What ComEd will do, like any new build, is they’ll pass that cost back to the consumer over a certain period of time.”