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EMPs: A Threat We’re Not Ready For

An electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear device or solar storm would be catastrophic, yet the U.S. remains unprepared.

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PHOTO: ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES

By

JOE COLANGELO

Updated June 13, 2016 9:38 a.m. ET

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The federal government has long known that electromagnetic pulses, or EMPs, pose a significant threat to America’s infrastructure, particularly the electrical grid. Yet federal agencies have done little to defend against this danger, as a congressional hearing last month shows.

EMPs are bursts of energy that can be caused by a nuclear detonation or a major solar storm. They induce massive voltage spikes in electronic devices and can irreparably damage all sorts of equipment—from large power transformers to household electronics.

An EMP produced by solar activity could cause extended blackouts for 40 million Americans and cost as much as $2.6 trillion, according to a 2013 study by Lloyd’s of London. In 2014 the executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security told Congress that EMPs pose “existential threats that could kill 9 of 10 Americans through starvation, disease, and societal collapse.”

A special EMP commission created by Congress offered a report in 2008 with nearly 100 concrete steps to mitigate the risk. For instance, upgrading the electric grid to be secure from the EMP threat would cost roughly $2 billion, while protecting 5,000 power-generation plants would cost only $250 million. These recommendations were meant to initiate direct action from both the departments of Homeland Security and Energy.

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But in April the Government Accountability Office released an alarming account of the bureaucratic dysfunction obstructing EMP mitigation. The GAO determined that although divisions within Homeland Security have been assigned specific tasks, departmental leaders have failed to ensure that this work is carried out. The two departments have not even identified the elements of the electrical infrastructure that most need protecting. Nor have the agencies coordinated strategies to address risks associated with EMPs, including research and development of equipment designed to mitigate damage.

On May 17 at a hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security, a GAO officialexplained that there had not been a “comprehensive, holistic effort to address” the EMP commission’s recommendations and “no designated lead for coordinating all these efforts.”

Brandon Wales of Homeland Security explained that his agency is working with the Energy Department on a study to assess the EMP risk. The study will not be completed until next summer, nearly a decade after the EMP commission published its recommendations.

My organization, Consumers’ Research, conducted its own study of EMPs out of concern for the threat they pose to the nation’s economic well-being. Though complexity contributes to the sorry state of preparedness, a major factor is bureaucratic ambiguity about who owns the problem. Worse, the recommendations of the EMP commission carry no legislative or executive mandate.

The consequences of inaction could be tremendous. In a 2012 article in Space Weather,Pete Riley of Predictive Science put the chances of a major solar storm in the next 10 years as high as 12%. Disruption of the electrical grid could have, as the GAO says, “cascading impacts on fuel distribution, transportation systems, food and water supplies, and communications and equipment for emergency services.”

The departments of Homeland Security and Energy are not protecting Americans from these threats. They are not doing their jobs.

Mr. Colangelo, a former U.S. Navy officer, is executive director of Consumers’ Research. EMPs: A Threat We’re Not Ready For

An electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear device or solar storm would be catastrophic, yet the U.S. remains unprepared.