Government, Industry Studying Threat of Nuclear EMP Attack on Electric Grid

Government, Industry Studying Threat of Nuclear EMP Attack on Electric Grid

American power companies are studying ways to protect electric grids against a high-altitude nuclear blast and other directed energy attacks that could severely disrupt electricity transmission, an industry representative told a Senate hearing Wednesday.

Scott Aaronson, managing director for cyber and infrastructure security at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), stated in testimony that a consortium of U.S. electric companies is working with the Energy Department to study how to protect power grids from a nuclear blast-produced electromagnetic pulse attack or solar flares that could damage transformers and other electric components and shut down power for millions of Americans.

“There are a lot of threats to the grid … from squirrels to nation states,” Aaronson said in testimony to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “And frankly, there have been more blackouts as a result of squirrels [gnawing wire insulation] than there are from nation states.”

The hearing was called to examine threats to critical infrastructure ranging from cyber attacks and criminal activities to terrorist sabotage and nation state nuclear attacks.

Aaronson, whose institute represents all investor-owned U.S. electric companies, said in testimony that electromagnetic pulse is a concern and could be caused by a high-altitude nuclear blast or a directed energy weapon.

The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, a group of chief executives from 21 electric companies and nine major industry associations, is working with the Energy Department to examine the threat. Aaronson, the council’s secretary, stated that the threat study is based on research done by the Pentagon and national laboratories.

“This project is designed to enhance our understanding of system impact should such an attack occur and to explore the effectiveness of mitigation strategies, including hardening and recovery,” Aaronson said in prepared testimony. “The project will allow grid-specific research to inform the application of technologies that will increase grid resilience and accelerate recovery.”

The EMP research followed a Government Accountability Office study in March that urged greater efforts to deal with the threat of an EMP attack against the electric grid. The report said both the Energy Department and Department of Homeland Security should work more closely with electric companies on the problem.

The GAO report concluded that “DHS and DOE, in conjunction with industry, have not established a coordinated approach to identifying and implementing key risk management activities to address EMP risks.”