Electric Grid Still Vulnerable to Electromagnetic Weaponry

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Although a spare unit might exist at one utility or another, De Martini noted that obtaining some units — like a new 500,000-volt transformer — requires a long lead time. How long? “It could be two to three years,” he said.

That might make the idea of an EMP attack tempting for some of America’s adversaries, said Bartlett. Because the electronic revolution has not reached North Korea, for example, he argued that it could weather an EMP with “little or no effect.”

But in the United States, a community zapped by EMP weaponry could expect nothing less than physical, economic and civic paralysis. An electronic Armageddon, if you will.

To maximize the real estate zapped, the detonation must take place at relatively high altitude so that the resulting line-of-sight stream of electrons would fan out across a huge swath. For instance, I noted in a story years ago, a small nuclear detonation from a satellite orbiting 250 miles above Omaha might literally shut down traffic coast-to-coast, fry bank computers everywhere and wipe out the North American power grid. Any and everything that relied on vehicles, electricity or computers would remain out of service until the fried circuits were replaced. All gazillion of them.

Only the Amish and others not reliant on late 20th — much less our 21st — century technology would escape unscathed. No wonder the military kept almost all data on EMPs classified until the mid 1960s. Even when I wrote a feature series on EMP weaponry, more than two decades ago, the Defense Department was still reluctant to talk about the nation’s vulnerability. Since then, public discussion of EMP has all but dried up. 

But clearly it remains on Bartlett’s radar screen.

At today’s hearing, he recalled sitting in a hotel room in Vienna, Austria, with three members of the Russian Duma several years back. Bartlett said one of them boasted that if Moscow wanted to really injure America, with no fear of retaliation, it would simply authorize a sub to launch a ballistic missile. “’We’d detonate a nuclear weapon high above your country,’” the Russian official told him, “’and shut down your power grid — and your communications — for six months or so.’”

Bartlett recalled another of the Russians adding, ‘“If one weapon wouldn’t do it, we have some spares. Like about 10,000.”

Earlier this week, Bartlett reported, the Secretary of Defense told him that DOD was counting on “deterrence” to protect the United States from EMP terrorism. And Bartlett said he told him: ‘Mr. Secretary, that’s not going to work.’”

America’s leaders have to understand, Bartlett argues, that “The 'smarter' we make the grid, the more vulnerable we are. And unless you’re incorporating EMP protection, you’re simply making it worse rather than better, as far as security is concerned.” To stave off attacks, the congressman recommends that the United States look to technologically limit its vulnerability  — because “vulnerability invites attacks.”

If all of this sounds like a playbook for foreign terrorists, don’t worry; I’m hardly letting the cat out of the bag. A novel about an EMP attack on the United States is out, Bartlett noted this morning, and a feature film based on it is in the works.

From Janet Raloff's blog, Science & the Public