EMP: A Poorly Understood Threat

Posted on July 21, 2009
Posted By: Alan Roth
Grid security managers are experiencing growing concern over cyber security while another serious threat, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), has received very little attention. An electromagnetic pulse attack can have a devastating impact on the grid, rendering it useless perhaps for many years. While it is generally considered a low frequency/high consequence threat, recent developments regarding both human-caused EMP and the likelihood of geomagnetic storms significantly increase the chances of a major hit. Protective activity needs to be jump-started if appropriate measures are to be in place before it's too late.

The American public is poorly informed about this threat and therefore is making no demand on their utility companies to take action. Our state and national legislatures are equally uninformed so there is no serious allocation of funds to support utility preparation. The public, in ignorance, is not demanding anything from their legislators. Yet, time is becoming a critical factor. Some exceptions to the general inattention given to EMP are (1) Alaska has passed legislation to study the issue, and (2) the University of Maryland has given an R&D grant to Instant Access Networks LLC to develop EMP-hardened renewable energy systems.

The EMP threat is real and it comes from a number of different sources. An intentional attack can be launched by an adversary using a scud or ballistic missile to detonate a nuclear device high over the U.S. A scud can be launched from a ship offshore to detonate a nuclear device at an altitude of 25 to 40 miles, which would impact an area with a diameter of 200 to 300 miles. A ballistic missile could achieve an altitude of 300 miles. At that height, if centered over Kansas, a detonation would impact all three of our major grids. The attack, launched at sea with the ship quickly sunk, would not identify the adversary for a counterattack. An adversarial attack can therefore be launched without the fear of immediate retribution.

The level of devastation would be enormous. The nuclear blast emits a powerful pulse that strikes in three distinct portions, each with a different character. The first, called E1, has a high peak amplitude which radiates in less than one billionth of a second and couples effectively to all electronic systems regardless of size. It is too fast to be captured by lightning arrestors or other conventional protective devices. It mainly destroys electronic equipment including electronic protective equipment.

The second, E2, has lower amplitude and couples effectively through long lines to networked systems. Protective devices that would normally handle this portion will have been disabled by the first portion. It saturates the cores of both generators and transformers. The third portion, E3, hits the ground and creates a ground-induced current (GIC) which is slow and long-lasting. The GIC is called geomagnetic-induced current when solar-sourced due to the geomagnetic storm from which the pulse is derived. E3 is a largely DC component which offsets the AC waveform and couples with long power transmission lines that lead it right into transformers and generators, where it destroys the already saturated cores.

Solar storms present a major EMP threat. Also called "severe space weather", a major solar storm can wreak havoc on our grids. An example is the severe space weather event that hit the Hydro-Quebec power system in Canada in March, 1989. Automatic voltage compensation equipment failed, resulting in a voltage collapse. Five transmission lines from James Bay were tripped, causing a generation loss of 9,450 MW. With a load of about 21,350 MW, the system collapsed within seconds resulting in a nine-hour blackout for the Province of Quebec. During this same storm, a large step-up transformer failed at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant in New Jersey. There were about 200 less severe events reported in the North American power system.

The online Operations Manual of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) cites geomagnetic storms of 1957, 1958, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1974, 1979, 1982, and 1989 as causes of major power system disturbances. However, "major" is a comparative term and may be inappropriate for those storms considering the destructive capability of the storms of 1859 and 1921. The former is the strongest ever recorded but the weaker 1921 storm was many times stronger than those cited by NERC. If a storm of that intensity were to occur during the increasing solar activity of the next few years, it would destroy most of the power equipment on our grids.

A National Research Council-sponsored workshop on the societal and economic impact of an EMP hit on our grids was held in February, 2008. It concluded that the consequences of a major storm would be catastrophic, dwarfing the damage from Hurricane Katrina and lasting 4 to 10 years. If we don't take steps to mitigate the impact, civilization as we know it would be destroyed. You can just imagine the consequences of instantly having no electricity across the nation for as long as 10 years.

It is truly remarkable how well our power systems have been improved by electronics to provide for much greater efficiency and safety. SCADA, as well as digital control systems and programmable logic controllers, have enhanced the operation and automation of power systems allowing for remote operation and the effective operation of very complex networks. This can be viewed as both a blessing and a curse, the latter due to the increased vulnerability of the network to EMP and other forms of electromagnetic interference.

The response to major blackouts over the past half century has been to develop protective methods and regulations that have helped to avoid many of the pitfalls of the past. Unfortunately, the damage from a nuclear blast or a massive solar storm cannot be averted with existing protective equipment. New devices and methods will be needed.

Two new factors are now playing a role in this complexity: the advent of the smart grid and the growing need for cyber security. Both are drawing the attention of grid security personnel, perhaps to the detriment of attention needed to develop better protection from EMP. The security component of the smart grid program is mainly oriented to protection from cyber crime as the expanded communication system needed for a smart grid opens up more opportunities for cyber attacks.

While electronics and microelectronics are omnipresent in today's grid environment, the smart grid will greatly increase their numbers. It will maximize the use of integrated circuits to manage every step from the generator to the consumer. If they are the first victims in a major EMP event, all of that investment would be for naught.

The potential for an EMP event is very real. The Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (aka EMP Commission) has vividly described how our adversaries can fairly easily launch a nuclear attack for which our grid currently has no significant defense. (The report is available on the commission's website.) The capability of our adversaries to launch a deadly attack is constantly increasing while our capability to defend against such an attack is constantly decreasing. An EMP attack could also be at ground level from small, high-energy EMP generators with varying levels of capability. Another source could be an explosion of a chemical plant. While these local EMP strikes would not cripple the nation, they could still, through a cascade effect, endanger some millions of Americans at the regional level.

In the recently released Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, chaired by former Secretaries of Defense William J. Perry and James R. Schlesinger, there is the statement:

"We note also that the United States has done little to reduce its vulnerability to attack with electromagnetic pulse weapons and recommend that current investments in modernizing the national power grid take account of this risk."

While efforts are underway to manufacture special grounding devices that could protect large generators and transformers from EMP damage, they are not yet ready for market. Also, there may be too little interest on the part of utility companies to devote financial resources to deploy them. The first step for utility security personnel is to study the potential for damage. A major EMP strike falls into the category of low frequency/high consequence and it is debatable how much should be spent when there is a relatively small chance that a major strike will occur. However, the consequences of a strike are so enormous that it cannot be ignored. Also, as the sun moves from a very quiet period to an energetic phase, due to peak in 2013, the chances of a less-than-major storm that would still cause considerable damage are much higher and the cost of protection less challenging. Grid security budgets will need to be enhanced to afford protective systems, both to counter the E1 portion that would damage electronics and to counter the stronger subsequent portions that would destroy generators and transformers.

Scientists are divided on the prospects for a major geomagnetic storm during the next active solar period. NOAA and NASA scientists are predicting a weak solar maximum in 2013 but this can be confusing as the great geomagnetic storm of 1859 occurred during a weak solar maximum.

The EMP threat has been very rarely mentioned in utility publications. Much more media exposure is needed. Grid security personnel, electric utility company executives, legislatures, government agencies, and the public at large need to learn about and appreciate the nature of this threat. They should start to learn about steps that can be taken at local, state, regional and national levels to mitigate this enormous potential for destruction. More emphasis needs to be placed on the development of local, protected renewable-energy generators which could provide at least a minimal power supply if the regional or national grid becomes dysfunctional.

Time is critical. Recent press reports show that North Korea is getting closer to a nuclear weapon and is actively developing its missile capability. The EMP Commission identified a number of potential sources that could launch an EMP attack. The next solar maximum is less than four years from now and the sun doesn't need to reach a solar maximum for a major geomagnetic storm to occur. Protective measures will take time to put into place. The time for action is now.

Authored By:
The author is Chief Risk Officer and a Vice President of Advanced Fusion Systems LLC. His company is actively developing EMP-protective devices that are intended to repeatedly take the three portions of a major EMP to ground. He can be reached at aroth@advfusion.com

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July, 21 2009

Ferdinand E. Banks says

As you almost certainly know, the New York Symphony Orchestra visited North Korea and played a concert for the movers-and-shakers in that country. A film was made of that concert, and looking at it was enough to tell me that instead of attacking the United States in one way or another, they will eventually 'get together' with South Korea in order to enjoy a little prosperity.

This process might already have started had it not been for the ignorance of George W. Bush and the stupidity of Condoleeza Rice. My suggestion is that if you need an example in your work you should turn to some South Seas principality and forget about North Korea's past indiscretions.

July, 21 2009

Len Gould says

Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse - by Jerry Emanuelson

An interesting, and fairly authoritative apperaing, article on the topic in www.futurescience.com. It's a topic on which I know nothing, but from reading the reference it appears to be perhaps a legitimate concern and should be fairly cheap to defend against, though I need to check that out further.

July, 22 2009

Alberto Ramirez Orquin says

I agree with this timely article that calls attention to this serious matter. I co-authored a grid security article this past January focusing on E3. I also agree that ‘a massive solar storm cannot be averted with existing protective equipment. New devices and methods will be needed’. Today however there is hope that GIC can be controlled cost-effectively with relatively simple/passive resistive means (recent US Pat). All energy stakeholders must realize the extraordinary importance of a reliable power grid and take a real proactive role. Playing Russian roulette with the sun has only been an apparent and deceiving lucky strategy this far; yet a terrible policy, bound to be proven wrong.

July, 23 2009

Harry Valentine says

There have been some major advances in small-site decentraliized power generation technology. Toshiba has developed a 10Mw mini-nuclear reactor, Hyperion has developed a 25Mw mini-nulcear system and Wilson Microturbines has developed a mini-turbine of some 1000kW that can operate at up to 50% thermal efficiency and offer the life expectancy of a mega-installation. Increased application of cost competitive decentralized generation could provide a measure of security against electromagnetic pulses that could other wise disrupt or incapaciitate the power grid.

July, 24 2009

Jon Nickles says

hmmmm, not to be too much of a cynic but isn't it ironic that this guys sells a service meant to defeat the"evil" threat of EMP...business must be slow. I myself would rather use series capacitors more often, that actually accomplish something and they do a pretty good job of mitigating GMIC and EMP...

July, 28 2009

Alberto Ramirez Orquin says

The whole utility business is slow, which includes series compensation; an option feared by many planners as a can-of-worms in complexity. Yet, in my opinion, a fine transmission expansion resource. Nevertheless with respect to GIC, it is an incidental positive externality at best.

July, 28 2009

Bruce Cavender says

Baskin Robbins markets its ice cream, Roche its medicines, Politicians their latest boondoggle, etc. I would argue that Alan is benefiting this energy group by making truthful, non-product GIC/EMP information available. On the receiving end, Information costs us nothing ... unless it is the opportunity cost paid when information about opportunities is spun/controlled/censored and the real chance to do the right thing is lost forever. The other, ugly side of that coin is where we would be forced into a transaction against our will...fortunately Alan doesn't have the governmental power to debit our checking accounts directly. Conflicts of interest reside in every human being/company/bureaucracy and will never go away.

I am not familiar with Alan's product, but good for him for seeing a solution to a big problem and risking his own savings to bring a product to market that faces uncertain demand. If there is no demand for it, it is his loss and nobody else's. That act should make him a hero not a villian. If electric utilities' managements vote with their dollars that his equipment creates real value for their consumers and investors, well bully for all of them. I hope he makes a sackful and goes on to develop 10 more products that make our lives better. Envy cannot keep a family warm or cure a disease. All associated with it is but waste.

I invite you and everyone in this forum to read WIlliam Forstchen's book "One Second After". The book is written from a graphic first hand viewpoint of the societal impact of an EMP Attack. I could not put it down. It needs to become a movie so Joe and Jane Sixpack can understand it. As an electrical engineer and 30 year SCADA/Telecom vet, this stirred me to buy/read the "Critical National Infrastructures" report. My experience backs up everything I read there.

This quote from the April 2008 CNI report says it all:

"There are about 2000 transformers rated at or above 345 kV in the USA with about 1 percent per year being replaced due to failure and new installations. Worldwide production capacity is less than 100 units per year and serves a world market, one that is growing at a rapid rate in such countries as China and India. Delivery of a new large transformer order today is nearly three years, including both manufacturing and transportation." .... and by the way... "All production is currently offshore."

Honestly ask yourself these two questions:

What position would the loss of 70% of this xformer asset base put our country in?

What is the impact on 'your family' after all our massive food cold storage and home refrigerators are offline a week...and will not come back for YEARS?

Our enemies are well aware that our dependence on technology combined with our lack of preparedness for EMP makes it THE most attractive "asymmetric warfare" opportunity going. If our electric grid was made impervious, it would take their option off the map...as well as protect us from another 1859 Class GIC event.

The USA would recover from a large NYC nuclear event, but a major GIC/EMP event will take America back to being an agrarian society. Or as one expert in the CNI report stated ... "The population of the USA would 'shrink' to the level where the remaining functional technology would sustain it." Consider for a moment what that "shrinkage" process really would mean in your own particular neighborhood.

Adding GIC/EMP protection is not chump change, however it is the ultimate "Pascal's Wager" for American Citizens.

Read "One Second After"... you will never be the same.

Best regards,

Bruce Cavender

July, 29 2009

David Sweetman says

What is the impact of solar induced EMP on distributed renewable energy systems?? Would a residential PV or wind system be shut down by a solar induced EMP?? How long would a residential PV or wind system take to recover or what level of repairs are required??

The grid is gone from a nuclear attack, but then so is the world. Seems to me, assuming the answers to the above are affirmative, that residential distributed generation is the only possibility to prevent the reduction of the USA overpopulation to manageable levels by the resulting urban starvation and violence from the eventual major solar storm.

May, 08 2010

john Marsh says

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