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Homeland Security Still MIA on EMP

As Matthew Harwood’s August 5, 2010 article in Security Management reminds us, Homeland Security has not “taken seriously the threat that a high-altitude detonation of a nuclear weapon could fry the nation’s power grid[.]”

As the article notes, Dr. Michael J. Frankel “warned the Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security that a terrorist organization or a rogue state could detonate a nuclear weapon either above the United States or close to its shores, creating an electromagnetic pulse attack that could severely damage the country’s electronic infrastructure.”

Frankel is executive director of the EMP Commission, which was created in 2001 to study the national security threat an EMP attack could pose to the United States.

While most of its work is classified, the commission has released two unclassified reports: one in 2004 and another in 2008. According to the article “Frankel believes DHS has the expertise in-house to tackle EMP preparedness but needs a Senate-confirmed leader to lead the charge. Already DHS has taken action against nuclear terrorist attack scenarios but continues to ignore the threat of an EMP attack, he said, even though the commission provided the department with 75 unclassified recommendations to mitigate vulnerabilities and promote resiliency in U.S. critical infrastructures.”

If anything, Frankel underplays the scope of the threat. The catastrophe would not stop at our borders. Most of Canada would die, too. Its infrastructure is integrated with the U.S. power grid. Indeed, without the American economic engine, the world economy would quickly collapse. Much of the world’s intellectual property (half of it is in the United States) would be lost as well. As a result of these loses, the Earth would likely recede into the “new” Dark Ages.

It is doubly strange that DHS has dedicated so little to this threat in that similar devastating effects could occur as part of a natural disaster. For example, scientists have long held that intense solar flares could produce similar effects. In addition, there are many other kinds of disasters – from cyber attacks to storms – that can incapacitate infrastructure. Furthermore, preparing for “worst case” scenarios would also improve America’s ability to cope with lesser disasters.

DHS should start to take practical steps now to mitigate the damage inflicted by the most catastrophic disasters imaginable later.