On Thursday, witnesses described to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that t electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks pose a major threat to the security of the United States. However, they disagreed over the various private and public efforts to protect the electric grid that remains vulnerable to EMP attack. Six witnesses offered policy options for protecting the nation’s energy infrastructure and improving capabilities for restoring the system after an attack.
Chairing the committee, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) described the heightened concern over the threat of EMP. These blasts of electromagnetic energy can be generated by a nuclear weapon and permanently disrupt or destroy microprocessors and other electronic and electrical devices, such as refrigerators. The spread of nuclear weapons, especially to North Korea, and the ubiquity of electronics, has heightened the concern. “This has magnified the impact, as compared to the potential impact in the 1960s, that an EMP burst could now have on the electric grid, the technologies that rely on electronics and our daily lives,” she said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) and Ambassador Henry F. Cooper -- a former director of the Defense Department’s Strategic Defense Initiative -- offered a bleak assessment of the nation’s vulnerability. Cooper said that most federal and state efforts to safeguard the electric system are “grossly inadequate.” He said the federal government has not devoted enough attention to EMP attacks that are “known to be included in the doctrine and planning of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.” No defense mechanism is perfect, Cooper acknowledged while adding that more should be done to “harden” critical infrastructure against “the full complement of threats.”
Even though he said North American has done an excellent job of developing an efficient electric grid, Gingrich said this very efficiency makes it inherently “fragile.” He said that a widespread failure of the grid that lasts a long time may be more damaging than the 9/11 terror attacks, Gingrich said. He said that hospitals, for example, may see patients die because of lack of potable water and other resources after an attack. He wrote about the threat in his book, “To Save America.”