Electromagnetic pulse attack on Grid could 'cripple' society
By Jack Encarnacao|16 hours ago
North Korea has threatened to launch an electromagnetic pulse attack that could shut down the United States' power grid - causing months of blackouts that could bring society to a halt, with rampant crime and social chaos.
Experts say the threat posed by an EMP - the side effect of an atmospheric Nuclear detonation - is significant, and New England is particularly vulnerable.
The rogue communist state announced yesterday it detonated what it described as a hydrogen bomb in an underground site, its sixth and by far most powerful nuclear test to date. It also released photos of dictator Kim Jong Un posing with the bomb, which could reach the U.S. when mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile that North Korea also is developing.
North Korea released a statement saying the bomb "is a multi-functional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated even at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP attack."
An EMP attack would involve exploding a nuclear weapon high above the United States, creating high-amplitude currents that, like lightning, would race to any conductors within the weapon's line of sight, such as electric transmission lines, causing power and telecom systems to malfunction or fail in a cascading fashion.
"EMP is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences," reads a report by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, established by Congress in 2001. "It has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructures and thus to the very fabric of U.S. society, as well as to the ability of the United States and Western nations to project influence and military power."
The commission estimates recovery from an EMP attack could take months or years, while failure of the power grid could "cripple critical infrastructures and hinder the delivery of day-to-day necessities." Extended blackouts in major cities such as New York have been accompanied by outbreaks of crime.
"It's a very significant threat to the population of the United States," said Thomas Popik, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained president of the New Hampshire-based Foundation for Resilient Societies. "We could be in a situation where it takes years to achieve some level of functioning government and society again."
Popik added, "The New England grid is more susceptible to long-term electric outage than perhaps any other area of the United States." He noted that 81 percent of the Bay State's power is imported or generated using imported natural gas. "It makes the state of Massachusetts particularly vulnerable, because the state relies on a long-distance supply chain for energy."
U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey, the top Democrat on the Far East and Global Cybersecurity Subcommittee, said the grid's "vulnerability to attack from terrorists and rogue states is one of the greatest threats to our nation's security. ... Preventing such an attack that could cause untold damage to our defense, banking and health care systems should be a top priority in addressing the threat of a nuclear North Korea."
There is disagreement over how likely North Korea would be to pursue such an EMP attack, considering how quickly the U.S. could counter with a nuclear strike of its own. Military systems are girded against the attacks through expensive enclosures that block electromagnetic fields.
Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review, said an EMP attack doesn't warrant more alarm than any other type of nuclear offensive because its efficacy is still uncertain - and it would have consequences for whichever nation launched it.
"It's just an untested approach to trying to use a weapon, and just invites retaliation without doing a lot of damage," Pollack said. "I'm much more concerned with blasting fire and radiation. Those will kill lots of people and destroy lots of stuff, and can do it very reliably."
But Popik - whose group is working on a grant-funded project to estimate how much it would take to secure the grid against an EMP attack - countered, "If you take out the electric grid and the communications system, first of all, there may not be the capability of a response. And second of all, it may take away the threat of the United States forever."